Sister Rosetta Tharpe kicked ass!
Born in March of 1915, she was a pioneer of rock and roll who first gained attention for her gospel recordings in the 1930s and 1940s. As she combined her spiritual sound with the secular, she transformed music as we know it. She was one of the first to use distortion in her guitar and slide her hand up the guitar’s neck to play the higher notes and solos. Artists she influenced include Little Rirchard, Jonny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards. When she was asked about her impact on music in the late 1960s, she said, “Oh, these kids and rock and roll — that is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.”
Tharpe’s 1944 release “Down by the Riverside” was selected for the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004, which noted that it “captures her spirited guitar playing and unique vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early rhythm-and-blues performers.”
Her 1945 hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day” was the first gospel record to become a cross-over hit as it reached number two on the Billboard “race records” (later to be renamed the R&B chart).
Tharpe’s performances were curtailed by a stroke in 1970 after one of her legs was amputated as a result of complications from diabetes. Three years later, another stroke took her life on the eve of a scheduled recording session. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia’s Northwood Cemetery. In 2008, a concert was held to raise funds for a marker, and January 11 was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania. A gravestone was placed later that year.
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