When you talked about Rosetta Tharpe you talked about a ball of energy. This woman would come out on the stage she’d have people laughing, she’d talk to them in a way that it was almost like she was related to them. And when she finished her act, they were standing. You know, they would love this woman. And she was a lovable person. I mean she was an approachable person. Even though she was a diva too, you know, because she did play the diva role.
—Ira Tucker

The time: the early 1960s. The place: a television studio. The occasion: the taping of TVGospel Time, a national program, before a live audience. A modestly dressed middle-aged woman takes the stage, launching into an improvised rendition of “Up Above My Head,” a church standard, accompanying herself on electric guitar. Behind her the white-robed mem- bers of a full gospel choir clap their hands in time to the music.

Up above my head, I hear music in the air
Up above my head, there is music in the air
Up above my head, music in the air
And I really do believe, really do believe joy’s somewhere.

It’s a commanding enough performance, the woman singing and playing with jaunty confidence, despite the canned context. Then, two-thirds of the way in, during a guitar solo that serves as the bridge, something astonishing happens. The church faithful might see it as the Holy Spirit descending; for others, it’s that magical moment when a really fine musician becomes lost in her music and yet remains utterly in control of its effects on her audience. The woman begins moving in tandem with the guitar, alternately swaying with it, leaning into it, and rocking it gently on her hip. At one point, she executes a little jump, high heels and long dress notwithstanding; at another, she makes a dramatic circular gesture with her right arm, allowing her hand to stray promiscuously from the strings for a teasing fraction of a second. Rapidly finger-picked notes press up against full-on power chords that linger languidly in the air. She squeezes notes from the high end of the pitch, relishing the gentle fuzz of distortion, then cajoles the instrument, commanding, “Let’s do that again!” And so the guitar soars briefly once more, eventually making a perfect, gentle landing into the final verse of the song.

The woman in question is Rosetta Tharpe, a vocalist and guitarist of the Sanctified Church and one of the most remarkable—yet largely forgotten—musicians of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1930s, she commenced a colorful career as gospel’s original crossover artist, its first nationally known star, and the most thrilling and celebrated guitarist of its Golden Age—so called because it saw the emergence of the genre’s defining artists, including Mahalia Jackson, whose fame would eclipse Rosetta’s by the 1950s.

Yet unlike Jackson, whose celebrity developed around her reputation as a defender of gospel tradition, Rosetta earned notoriety for her instinct for creative insubordination and her practiced talent for show-biz flamboyance. From spiritual singing that could bust out in blues cadences—and, in private, touch on “blue” subjects—to a guitar virtuosity that set her apart from any other performer of her era, Rosetta’s particular genius defied categorization. Her music incorporated elements of gospel, blues, jazz, popular ballads, country, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. When she was at the top of her game, no one could touch her charisma or jaw-dropping talent.

Rosetta’s exuberant self-expression clashed with the prevailing rhythms of her time, making her the kindred spirit of secular artists such as blues singer Bessie Smith. And like the persona of Smith’s celebrated “Young Woman’s Blues,” who also sang about the “long lonesome road,” Rosetta was often too busy living to settle down. In an age when church folk looked askance at divorce and shunned blues as the devil’s music, she fled an unhappy first marriage to a Pentecostal preacher to become a star in pre–World War II New York. Her ebullient spirit propelled her out of storefront churches and tent meetings and into venues such as the Cotton Club, Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, the left-leaning nightspot Café Society, and Carnegie Hall. Rosetta played all of these places, as well as the Grand Ole Opry and arenas, stadiums, high-school auditoriums, and churches around the country. Her dazzling guitar playing, which featured a finger-picking style unusual at the time, indelibly influenced Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Red Foley, Etta James, Little Richard, Bonnie Raitt, Ruth Brown, Isaac Hayes, and many others.

Before the Clara Ward Singers made gospel singing glamorous, Ro- setta did gospel programs in sequined gowns and a series of dye jobs or wigs of different colors—sometimes she was a blonde, sometimes a red-head—riding grandly into town on her own tour bus. In the socially conservative 1950s, she staged her nuptials to her third husband in a baseball stadium in Washington, D.C., entertaining a crowd of tens of thousands by playing guitar in her wedding dress. She resisted the moral severity of the Pentecostal Church, while embracing its musical values of emotional expressiveness. Her 1945 crossover hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” a humorous jab at religious hypocrisy that became a favorite of Memphis radio announcer Dewey Phillips (and subsequently of Phillips protégé Elvis Presley), may well be the first rock and roll song. And while Mahalia made her Newport Jazz Festival debut conditional on her singing on Sunday morning, with no secular music following her performance, Rosetta took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1967 “garbed,” as Anthony Heilbut puts it in The Gospel Sound,“in unfolksy [and unseasonal] mink.”

She was a woman of many guises: she could play the sincere penitent, the deep spiritualist, the saintly believer, or she could play the humorous exhibitionist, the uninhibited flirt, the needy child. Just as she crossed and recrossed the line between secular and sacred sound, so Rosetta, according to jazz critic Richard Hadlock, could at times cross “into that territory normally reserved for comico-coquettish entertainers like Mae West and Pearl Bailey.” No one could accuse her of disliking the grand gesture, whether histrionic tears or magnanimous, magnificent expressions of loving-kindness.

Rosetta’s courage to follow her artistic convictions and pursue her ambitions set her apart from popular musicians on both sides of the sacred/secular divide. In the racially segregated rural and small-town communities where most black people lived before World War II, churches were defining institutions, and ambitious young musicians confronted the parting of paths between the church and the world as crucial career turning points. Those who pursued the secular path, from Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker to Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke, inevitably paid a price for their choices in the reproach of the very communities that had nurtured and applauded their talents. In many cases, becoming a popular entertainer meant severing ties to these communities—if not permanently, then until success paved a golden path back into the good graces of the congregation.

Most African American musicians raised in the church had little option but to choose, as soul singer Al Green once put it, between lifting up their voices for God or taking a bow for their third encores. Rosetta, in contrast, attempted to inhabit an in-between place where the worlds of religious and popular music intersected and overlapped. She performed church hymns on secular stages. She breached standards of holiness and respectability by singing blues and jazz songs about worldly desires. Even when limiting herself to a church repertoire, she stuck out as a loud woman: loud in her playing, loud in her personality. In concert, she combined the spontaneous fervor of religious revivals with the practiced production values of Broadway variety shows. She could sing about the evils of worldliness with irreverent pleasure. And like the best preachers, she was capable of presenting herself as both larger than life (the furs, wigs, and jewelry) and as her audience’s equal in human frailty and suffering (no one could say she hadn’t sinned and paid for it).

Some—especially in the Pentecostal Church—preferred a musician with a little less swing in her spirituals and schmaltz in her style. Even secular fans sometimes objected to her theatrics. And yet even Rosetta’s critics could not but marvel at the extraordinary guitar playing that became her hallmark as a performer. In that day it was still unusual to see a woman guitarist, in gospel or in any musical field. Not merely to play, but to wield the instrument with authority and ease, was to subvert conven- tion and expectation.

Rosetta exploited her novelty as a “girl guitarist” to its fullest. Build- ing on skills she had honed since childhood, she played for maximum visual as well as aural impact, simultaneously dancing the digits of her right and left hands in a see-if-you-can-do-this display of dexterity. Most self-accompanying players of the 1930s and ’40s strummed along to their singing, subordinating the guitar to the vocals, but Rosetta gave the instrument its own distinct voice. And to be sure she got an audience’s full attention, she pushed amplifiers to their ear-splitting limits, challenging anyone to outdo her in volume if not in flair.

Paradoxically, Rosetta developed her stage persona through a deep-seated religious faith acquired in childhood. Believing her talents to be divinely inspired, she saw herself doing God’s work as a popular musician. It never mattered much to her whether her listeners were “saved,” only that they got something from her music. Such generosity of spirit endeared her to an unusually broad audience, including working-class white and black Southerners, urban jazz aficionados, and European venerators of the ragtime and blues traditions. Although he counts Mahalia her artistic superior, “Sister did more than anyone else in introducing the music of the Negro church to the world,” says gospel scholar Horace Clarence Boyer.

In hindsight, nearly everything Rosetta accomplished as a musician seems ahead of its time—sometimes not by years, but by decades. Felled by a stroke in 1973, when she was fifty-eight, she didn’t have the opportunity to witness the flowering of soul, although it was a music she helped innovate through her own experiments in bridging worlds of sound. Indeed, it’s hard to conceive of as seminal a figure as Elvis, whose genius similarly lay in his ability to confound the usual categories, without first imagining Rosetta.

But of course Elvis emerged in a world that venerated the achievements of white men above all others, while Rosetta was neither white nor male. Following the trail she blazed, other black women, including early rock androllers Ruth Brown and Etta James, would envision the possibility of one day getting up in front of audiences to sing anything they liked. So fresh has her guitar work remained, moreover, that, watching one of her rare recorded performances, one has the impression of witnessing something both temporally distant and utterly contemporary.

Rosetta’s life would bear out all of the contradictions and tensions of her song “The Lonesome Road,” a blues she sang in a Sanctified style, portraying a desire for companionship that attaches itself to objects both sacred and secular. Her story defies the usual divisions: tragic or triumphant, self-aggrandizing or self-sacrificing, clay-footed or transcendent. In the course of a thirty-five-year professional career, much of it spent on the road, she withstood failed marriages, personal disillusionment, volatile economic circumstances, racial discrimination, and rejection by her church. Like so many others, she confronted the vicissitudes of fame and fortune in a gospel world as rife with backstabbing, competition, and hustling as any other musical sphere. The woman who once owned two homes and a Cadillac and required a large shed to house all of her gowns is today buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia. She combined independence and vulnerability, savvy and gullibility, sometimes in equal measure. Although she sang about the wages of sinful living, she pursued romantic relationships—primarily with men, but occasionally with women—wore pants before they were the norm for women, and swore like a sailor. She also maintained a lifelong a‰liation with a church that regarded all of these behaviors as anathema.

Jim Dickinson, the legendary record producer, recalls what it was like to discover Rosetta when he was a teenager growing up in Memphis: “A female gospel singer playing electric guitar in a spangled evening dress was pretty unique in 1955.” It’s safe to say it is still pretty unique more than a half-century later.

Related Links