Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s legacy lives on 44 years after her death

By Nina Steele 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 –1973) who was childless, is often referred to as “the Godmother of rock and roll”. She was a musical prodigy, having started performing by age 6. Her dexterity at playing the guitar is legendary. Watching her put on a first class performance on a platform, in a disused railway station in Manchester in 1964, is a reminder of not only how talented she was, but also of her charisma. Not even the heavy rain that fell shortly before her performance and the drizzle that followed, managed to dampen her spirit.

Although her voice stood out for all the right reasons, Sister Rosetta Tharpe will first and foremost be remembered for her unique talent at playing the guitar, partly because, most people did not expect a woman to be as good as she was. One of the people watching her perform in Manchester summed this up very well when he said: “Lots of people, myself included, were looking around for the bloke playing lead guitar – and it’s not anyone else, it’s her”.

Her popularity may have waned in the 1950s, but by 1964, she had recorded 13 albums and had achieved worldwide fame. Her brand of music is described as: “gospel recordings, characterized by a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment that was a precursor of rock and roll”. She is said to have been “the first great recording star of gospel music and among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll audiences”. Elvis Presley was one of the many artists she inspired.

Sadly, by the time of her death, she was said to be “broke and depressed”, no doubt due in great part to the ill health she suffered in her later years. She suffered a stroke in 1970 and then had a leg amputated “as a result of complications from diabetes”. The second stroke she would go on to have in 1973 would turn out to be fatal. It was on October 9th.

As is often the case with great talents, they never leave us completely. Since her death, footages from some of her performances have been used in films. Not only that, a renewed interest in her work has translated into many posthumous honours, including the issue by the United States Postal Service of a stamp in her honour in 1998, and her induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007. On December 13, 2017, it was announced that she would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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