A Black Woman Pioneered Rock and Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Retrieval of Her Legacy
We all know Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles –but what if I told you a black woman walked so they could run?
Her name was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an African American singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Her career spanned from 1919–1973, 20 years before Elvis Presley’s reign (1942–1977) and The Rolling Stones (1962).
Why is it that these prominent male staples are known for their contribution to rock music, yet their style is rooted in cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc., of one person/group by members of a more dominant person/group.
When Maroon 5 made their song “Moves Like Jagger,” It was a hit! People were dancing like Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones. When observing his charismatic moves and vibe, you can’t help but note the “soulful” influence. Much of The Rolling Stones’ legacy is reflective of the African American musicians they admired. The group was initially named the “Rollin’ Stones” after one of their favorite Muddy Waters songs. Muddy Waters is another black musician prominent 20 years before The Rolling Stones era.
Mick Jagger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, 14 years before Rosetta Tharpe, who was recently inducted in 2018.
Little Richard came to fame after Rosetta Tharpe brought him on stage during one of her concerts in 1947. At the time, he was only 14-years-old. She overheard Little Richard singing one of her gospel songs before she got on stage at Macon City Auditorium and later invited him to open her show.
Little Richard was added to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986–32 years before Rosetta Tharpe’s induction.
So you might ask why now? Sister Rosetta Tharpe deserves every bit of credit and acknowledgment in her contribution to pioneering Rock and Roll. Here’s how she did it:
Who was Rosetta Tharpe?
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Atkins on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, to Willis Atkins and Katie Bell Nubin. Rosetta was the third child of Willis, who would later have 12 more children — 20 years after Rosetta’s birth. Both of her parents were musically inclined, and her father taught her how to play the guitar.
Rosetta started her singing experiences in the church as a traveling evangelical troupe. In 1921, Rosetta’s parents divorced, and she and her mother moved to Chicago, IL. Her fantastic guitar skills and soulful voice allowed her to pick up traction in the secular world of music. The church did not support this transition, so needless to say; she used this separation from the church as an opportunity to pilot her music career.
The stage name Tharpe was an alteration of her first husband’s surname, Thorpe. She continued to perform under the name Rosetta Tharpe after her divorce.
In 1938 at age 23, she and her mother moved to New York City, where she signed to Decca Records. Upon arriving in New York, Rosetta joined the Cotton Club Revue — a New York City nightclub located on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, which operated during the Jim Crow and Prohibition era. Initially, African Americans could not patronize the Cotton Club; however, the venue did feature many of the most popular black entertainers of the period, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday a few.
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern portion of the United States. Rosetta had the talent to beckon a crowd of white and black musical enthusiasts, but she still faced oppressions such as being confined to black-only hotels, restaurants, and events. These hinderances didn’t stop her, though; she remained passionate and dedicated to her talented nature.
Music was heavily dominated by male musicians in the 1940s. There weren’t very many female guitarists at this time, let alone an African American one. Rosetta collaborated with heavy-hitting artists of that era, like Duke Ellington and the Dixie Hummingbirds. In 1941, she recorded songs like “Shout Sister Shout” with Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra, a notable swing band.
Rosetta married her manager Russell Morrison (her alleged third-marriage) in 1957, and it was not your traditional wedding. Imagine Beyonce getting married live at the Superbowl. The Griffith Baseball Stadium in Washington, D.C, was the venue for their wedding. The event was a full ceremony and performance, surrounded by 25,000 guests who purchased tickets to attend. A concert was recorded from this event and later converted into an album.
Shortly after the wedding, her popularity started to die down due to an influx of male musicians taking the genre by storm. It was around the time Elvis grew in popularity among other famous artists in the 1950s.
Rosetta eventually booked a month-long Blues and Gospel Caravan tour in the United Kingdom with British trombonist Chris Barber and other blues artists such as Otis Spann, Muddy Waters, Jack Myers, Brownie McGee, Sonny Terry, and Reverend Gary Davis.
Her creativity was divine. Rosetta’s most iconic performance happened in 1964 where she sang in the rain at a South Manchester, England train station. She is stepping out of a horse-drawn carriage, with blues and gospel playing in the background, and she performed “Didn’t it Rain?”
Rosetta toured in Europe until her last known recording from 1970 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
There isn’t a lot of information about Rosetta Tharpe's personal and family life. Many journalists have written articles about Rosetta, but their focus is on her musical contribution solely with a minimal call to action regarding her impact.
Rosetta Tharpe is my great-aunt –she is my paternal grandfather’s eldest sister. My first account of Auntie Rosetta’s legacy was when my grandfather gave me two electric guitars. Around this time, I discovered just how much I loved Prince’s music and diving into alternative and rock genres. As he transferred ownership on the instruments, he vaguely mentioned, “music is in our blood. My older Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a famous musician who could play the guitar and sing.” I was immediately intrigued by this story. I have a great aunt who was a famous musician?! This sentiment gave me a sense of pride and honor.
The older I got, the more I realized just how big of a deal Rosetta Tharpe was regarding single-handedly pioneering rock and roll and influencing many. I recall mentioning to teachers, friends, and anyone who would listen, just how amazing and influential my great aunt was. That was until I realized this influence fell on deaf ears. Why is no one this excited about her legacy?
During one of her tours down South, She frequently stayed at Sumner Hotel in Camden, Arkansas — a blacks-only hotel. The Green Book, a North American travel guide for African Americans during the Jim Crow era, allowed them to safely navigate black-owned establishments when traveling.
From this visit, Rosetta learned about her father’s other children that lived in Camden. My elder cousin Effie McGee had a Zoom interview with me where I asked her for information on our aunt’s legacy. Effie’s mother was the second oldest sibling of the Atkins crew after Willis’ divorce. Rosetta grew up an only child, so she took great pride in having younger siblings. Any time she was in their city, she would make it a point to spend quality time with them and gift them with things.
Effie shared a sentimental story about her visits to Auntie Rosetta’s hotel when she was a young girl. Auntie Rosetta would dump her purse contents out on the bed and let Effie pick whatever she wanted from it. Effie also recalled when Auntie Rosetta brought her sisters and nieces on stage with her at a performance. It was such a thrilling moment for cousin Effie to see first-hand the impact her auntie had on the masses.
Donnell Atkins, one of the youngest siblings of Rosetta Tharpe, recalls spending the summer of 1955 with her in Richmond, VA. “It was like paradise. I went home with new alligator shoes by the end of that summer,” Donnell explained as he reminisced on the experience. He was fresh out of high school and one of the only siblings to spend extended time with her. Rosetta wanted to give him an experience outside of his small town in Camden. She made sure her baby brother had all the necessary resources to get farther in life, such as exposure to higher educational opportunities, quality clothing, and quality time.
Donnell noted that their father, Willis Atkins, never got an opportunity to see Rosetta after she and her mother moved away. He did, however, get a chance to hear Rosetta’s music on the radio, and it brought a smile to his face! “That’s my baby! I taught her how to play the guitar!” Willis exclaimed.
It is so essential for the family to tell her story — her achievements are worthy of every ounce of recognition. Still, we first have to share Auntie Rosetta’s story from an individual perspective.
Death and Legacy
Throughout this article, the importance of building Rosetta Tharpe’s character is to remind the reader of her accomplishments during a heavily obstructing period for black women.
It is unfortunate enough that her style has been recreated and credited to those who imitate her. Still, the invisibility she faced in her final days undervalues all she had triumphed.
Rosetta’s health began to fail in 1970 after a leg amputation due to complications from diabetes. Three years later, she died of a stroke in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rosetta’s resting place is at Northwood Cemetery in Pennsylvania, where she laid in an unmarked grave for nearly 30 years after her death.
How is it that a renowned musician such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who has influenced an entire generation of musicians with her career spanning almost four decades, could lay without a headstone for 30 years? Who is managing her estate? Black artist are frequently exploited in this music industry through unfair contracts and unpaid royalties.
Her obituary was mediocre and failed to emphasize the legend that had just passed away. Why isn’t her achievements, mastery of the guitar, and dedication not conveyed here? The passing of Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an opportunity to truly honor her legacy. Most legendary musicians who have transitioned are celebrated in a way that immortalizes them.
Rosetta’s story had only been told by those who studied her broadly through the lenses of her contribution to the music industry, but little to no smoke has been kicked up regarding how we can pay homage to her. The Atkins family does a beautiful job of honoring her through family events and reunions. A Facebook Group called “Fans of Sister Rosetta Tharpe” reposts snippets of her performances, and some members share their experiences at her concerts. Even her hometown in Cotton Plant, AR, named highway 17, the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Memorial Highway, which stretches from Cotton Plant to Brinkley (Monroe County).
The narratives shared regarding my great Aunt Rosetta Tharpe are meant to retrieve her legacy and ensure that she is honored and recognized for her contributions to music as we know it today; her guitar skills were like no other. Music was in her, and therefore her talent shined through her. I intend to create a Rosetta Tharpe Performing Arts Center where young musicians and artists can showcase, design, and develop their craft.