“My whole career has been one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” – Chuck Berry
Before Patti Smith became the Godmother of Punk, there was first the Godmother of rock and roll. This Godmother dabbled in the soul of gospel, danced into R&B, threw in the off-kilter rhythms of swing, tossed it all together with a slosh liquid bravura and a careless garnish of fucklessness, poured it over an ice-cool fortitude and just about served up the complete stylings of rock ‘n’ roll.
Her fast hammer-clawed guitar plucking may well be her most obvious gift to the inception of rock ‘n’ roll, but once more, it is the attitude with which she propagated her Promethean guitar playing that helped it conquer the world in a drip-feed of the soundtrack to progress.
As with many of the pioneering musicians of the era, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gateway into music was through Gospel, as John Cooper Clarke once said: “All the best musicians started out in church; Jesus invented rock ‘n’ roll.” She started learning guitar at the tender age of four and within two years she was travelling with a musical troupe across the South of the United States, learning from her mother and fellow musicians about how music could lift her both literally and spiritually from the despair of the plantations.
As she travelled around the southern states, she became exposed to a smorgasbord of rock ‘n’ roll precursors. She performed with swing stars like Cab Calloway, picking up Jazz sounds from outside of the Cotton Club and mingling with the careworn riff-making masters of the blues, she then swirled them all together into a melee that was entirely her own, a melee that would later be called rock ‘n’ roll.
With her precocious talent there for all of the southern stars to remark upon, it didn’t take long before she was whisked into a studio. ‘That’s All’ was one of her very first four songs and it helped to launch her to fame with her hollering style, adrenalised guitar playing far faster and more fluid than anything else in the era, and lyrics like “You can go to hell,” which were borderline riotous to shout on the radio at the time.
This salacious subtext and emboldened desire to be nobody but herself is truly what makes her the pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll. She even had an early hit called ‘Rock Me’ with a double meaning as clear as any Carry On movie gags. With this profuse attitude, she threw down a mantra that disavowed the overbearing influence of the church on music, which proved to absolutely vital at the time.
This social iconoclasm is something that permeated her personal life to boot. And it is this that makes her not only a rock ‘n’ icon and pioneer but also an LGBTQ trailblazer. While it is hard to confirm for obvious reasons, there are swathes of biographical accounts that testify to her openly bisexual behaviours and the powerful way that she brandished both herself and her music to help the cause of sexual liberation, key to the notion of sexual equality that followed, eventually leading to pride as we know it today.
In the 2007 biography Shout, Sister, Shout!, Gayle Wald explored the stories of her sexual promiscuity with both sexes and concluded, “Do I think Sister Rosetta Tharpe had attractions to and sexual relations with women? Yes,” Wald said. “But I don’t know if she used any words to identify herself.”
“In the gospel world, it was understood that people protected each other’s privacy. You didn’t want to ruin anyone’s career or life,” Wald said. “That way, people lived their lives as openly as they could. I think she lived in a world with a certain amount of openness.”
In this regard, she catapulted liberalism in a wave of defiant attitude and sonic subversiveness into a pre-secularised world, as she shredded the guitar as nobody had before all while dancing in heels – how’s that for a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?
“Can’t no man play like me,” was her motto as she entreated the lord to watch her play staring heavenward during blistering solo’s, very much the first of their kind. But perhaps the most prophetic move in her playing style was to enlist The Jordanaires as her backing singers. The notion of white male musicians being the ‘backing’ singers for a black female was incredulous, and it was this poignant show of liberty and union that brought her to the attention of a man who would be king, a young Elvis Presley.
And as fate would have it, Elvis Presley himself would later play a key role in the sexual liberation that later seeded the pride movement via his hip-snaking ways. In fact, when Elvis’ pelvis was in full swing in 1956, it led CBS towards the decree that he was only to be filmed from the waist up following his gyrating antics on The Ed Sullivan Show.
This month as the world celebrates Pride in a wave of egalitarian goodwill, it is thanks to heroes like Sister Rosetta Tharpe whose defiant boon of soul-salvation called out the masses in a benevolent unifying force of solidarity, that such celebrations can occur. Whether it be her hammering style or her attitude of liberty and the power of her soul, she is a sister who formed rock ‘n’ roll and the inviolable sanctity and decree of individualism contained therein.
Throughout this month we will be shedding light on a range of trailblazers in art and culture which you can read all about here.