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Forgotten Heroes: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Forgotten Heroes: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Never, Ever Daunted
Despite her modest pronouncement in Manchester, Tharpe knew just how good she was. Many gospel groups included male guitarists who lived in fear of going toe-to-toe with her. In her comprehensive biography, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gayle F. Wald quotes Inez Andrews, who performed on many gospel programs with Tharpe, as saying, “The fellows would look at her, and I don’t know whether there was envy or what, but sometimes she would play rings around them. She was the only lady I know that would pick a guitar and the men would stand back.”

Tharpe played a P-90-equipped Les Paul during her 1957 tour of South Wales with Chris Barber. Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images
As Tharpe toured Europe in 1970 with the American Folk, Blues, and Gospel Festival, the first indications that her health was failing began to appear. At first, it was numbness in her arms. But doctors didn’t discover that diabetes was the source of the problem until it had progressed to the point that her leg had to be amputated. But Tharpe—ever lively, flirtatious, and spirited—didn’t let that slow her down. During subsequent shows, it was common for her to jump up from her chair and hop around the stage on one leg. This woman was rock and roll. Sadly, Tharpe died in 1973 of a stroke brought on by diabetes. She had been preparing to go into the studio to cut another record.

Many have wondered what happened to her guitars after her death, but the disposition of Tharpe’s famous white SG remains unclear. Marie Knight claims it was buried with her. Others say the man Tharpe married in front of the multitudes at Griffith Stadium was “a gold digger” who sold the guitar for ready cash after his meal ticket was gone. The latter doesn’t seem implausible, considering Morrison refused to even let go of enough money to pay for a headstone. He opted instead to have his legendary, inspiring, and influential wife buried in an unmarked grave. It was a tragic ending for a performer who helped shape the future of electric guitar and modern music as we know it.

Though there is no written account of players like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, or Mick Taylor having seen Tharpe perform, given their known obsession with blues-influenced American guitar players of that era, it’s hard to believe they weren’t influenced by this trailblazing woman who shattered the bounds of race and gender and pushed tube amps to their limits before they’d owned their first Marshalls.

Lest there be any doubt as to Tharpe’s abilities, Wald quotes a man who heard her perform many times. Alfred Miller, musical director of Brooklyn’s Washington Temple, Church of God in Christ, said, “She could do runs, she could do sequences, she could do arpeggios, and she could play anything with the guitar. You could say something and she could make the guitar say it . . . I mean, she could put the guitar behind her and play it; she could sit on the floor and play it, she could lay down and play it.”

But Wald herself said it best: “Whenever a rock or gospel or rhythm and blues musician turns the amps up, we’re living in the presence of Rosetta, who made a habit of playing as loud as she could, based on the Pentecostal belief that the Lord smiled on those who made a joyful noise.”

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