If you do a web search of women heroes of music you get a long list of well-known names. But once you’ve waded through the Madonna’s, Dolly Parton’s, Joni Michell’s and Ella Fitzgerald’s etc, and, believe it or not, one writer even suggested, The Spice Girls, one name is noticeable by its absence - that of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in March 1915 Rosetta was the daughter of Katie Bell and Willis Atkins. Both her parents were cotton pickers, an employment only one step removed from slavery. Although it’s hard to imagine the poverty and extreme racism of Arkansas immediately after the First World War, the family lived just sixty miles north of the town of Elaine. There, just four years after her birth, black sharecroppers (farmers who rented their land in return for a proportion of their crops going to landowners) were meeting to try and get a better price for their cotton. The outcome was a riot that turned into a massacre.
Although no accurate records were kept, it is thought that hundreds of black residents were murdered, initially by white farmers, then by the army.
“Colonel Jencks and his troops, assisted by vigilantes, hunted black people over a 200-mile radius. They scorched and burned homes with families inside, slaughtered and tortured others.” (New York Times)
Little surprise that Sister Rosetta’s mother, a pastor in the Church of God in Christ, two years later took her daughter to Chicago. With huge numbers of black families and workers emigrating from the South, the Chicago church was not only a meeting place of evangelicals but also a fusion of musical styles, from the jazz of New Orleans to the blues of the Mississippi delta. Rosetta, often described as precocious, clearly delighted in playing guitar and singing in church, even at such a young age.
Her mother, realising her daughter’s potential, increasingly took her to perform at churches across the country, until at the age of nineteen she was married off to a church minister, the Reverend Tommy Tharpe. His main interest it seems was not romantic but more exploiting his young wife’s growing fame in order to increase his own congregation and wealth. Unsurprisingly after four years the marriage fell apart and Sister Rosetta moved with her mother to New York.
There at the age of twenty-three her career turned from the religious to the risqué as her talents found fame singing songs filled with sexual innuendo in the booming nightclubs of the city. With her popularity ever rising Rosetta joined one of the big bands of the day and went onto have a string of hit records, some secular, many more in the gospel tradition, although often given her own R&B interpretation. She was gospel music’s first superstar, playing with Duke Ellington and commanding high fees and a large audience.
Despite her fame, being black, there were hotels and restaurants she couldn’t stay at or eat in because they were ‘Whites Only’. She got around this by touring in a bus that had a bed in it and challenging racist promoters by singing with white musicians, such as the Jordanaires, something that was virtually unknown in America of the 1940’s.
She also faced challenges in other ways. After largely unsuccessful relationships with men she found more enduring success with women. One such was Maria Knight who joined her on tour. As her biographer, Gayle Wald, points out, two women touring together was not only dangerous but also risky, revelation of their relationship would at that time have ended their careers as well as potentially exposing them to violence.
After her relationship with Knight ended Rosetta embarked, at the prompting of promoters, to contract a bizarre wedding. The absence of a boyfriend was little problem as just two weeks before the ceremony she selected a virtually unknown music promoter, Russel Morrison, for the honour. She booked a baseball stadium in Washington, charged people for attending and then sold the recording rights. Twenty five thousand people paid many bringing with them wedding gifts for the couple. It was to be, at least in the States the fulcrum of her career. Mismanaged by her new husband and overtaken by the development of rock music, Rosetta's didn’t keep pace with the times and dropped out of fashion.
Yet, if the USA had tired of her music, blues and gospel was thriving in Europe. She toured the UK with jazz musician Chris Barber in the late 1950’s plus in 1964 performed in what must rate as one of the strangest TV shows ever. Set in a disused railway station in Manchester it was dressed up to look like an American railroad setting. The band performed on one platform with the audience seated on the opposite side. However, the Manchester rain and the British audience clearly suggest more Moss Side than Memphis.
If her career in the States was in decline her influence remained. Chuck Berry said his entire career was “one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” Little Richard called her, ‘his favourite singer’. Johnny Cash adored her voice and Elvis Presley paid homage.
After her UK tour Bob Dylan was moved to comment “I’m sure there are a lot of young English guys who picked up electric guitars after getting a look at her”.
Yet in the USA it wasn’t just Rosetta’s music that was fading. Her mother died whilst she was touring Europe and Sister Rosetta then began to suffer from depression and diabetes (eventually causing one of her legs to be amputated) following a stroke in 1970. Another stroke in 1973 caused her death on October 9th.
The inscription on her gravestone read “She would sing until you cried, and then she would sing until you danced for joy.”
Maybe it’s time rock music better acknowledged the legacy she created.