The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been around long enough to honor a long list of the artists whose music fed into the genre's roots. Now that we've entered an era in which the rock stars of the '90s have become eligible for induction, it can be all too easy to assume that the most important names of the past have already been honored. That's a faulty assumption, however — and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the pioneering singer, songwriter, and guitarist listed among this year's potential honorees, is a perfect example of a rock 'n' roll forbear who definitely deserves to be enshrined in the Hall.
She's far from a household name, particularly among younger generations of rock fans, and you aren't likely to find any of her recordings on the radio dial — on rock stations or otherwise. But even if she's never really received her commercial or cultural due, there's no escaping Sister Tharpe's fundamental influence on generations of artists who came after her, and any institution dedicated to honoring rock history is incomplete without a space reserved for honoring her legacy.
With that in mind, here's a brief overview of some of the more easily identifiable reasons for inducting this groundbreaking artist with this year's class of new Rock Hall acts. From the way she helped build the bridge between gospel and rock to her place in the pantheon among early electric guitarists, here's why Sister Rosetta Tharpe should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born March 20, 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Sister Tharpe grew up during a time — and in a place — that wasn't particularly overflowing with opportunities for young women to make a living as professional performers. She defied expectations from the start, marking herself as a guitar prodigy from a very young age; by the time she was six, she was performing as Little Rosetta Nubin with a traveling musical roadshow connected with her mother's progressive Baptist church. By the time she was in her 20s, she was already a seasoned stage performer — earning a confidence that would serve her well as her singular style attracted adulation as well as controversy.
As she rose to early fame, Sister Tharpe — who took her stage moniker from a variation of her first husband's last name — stood almost alone in the American pop culture landscape. Her first recordings, cut for Decca in 1938, helped bring gospel music to a new mainstream audience, launching her to seemingly overnight success in the bargain. But it wasn't just musical trendsetting that made her unique: Tharpe was also one among a very small number of female artists to find an audience as a solo act, with Memphis Minnie arguably her closest counterpart.
It's still undeniably difficult for female rock guitarists to get their due, and rock remains heavily male-dominated music. But the uphill climb faced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe was steeper still, and her prodigious instrumental prowess was all too often patronizingly put down by her audience in an era when it was still considered high praise for a female guitarist to be told she played like a man. In fact, it's no stretch to say she played better than many of her peers regardless of gender, drawing on multiple disciplines and developing techniques that pointed the way toward the sound that would soon revolutionize modern music.
Gospel Meets Rock 'n' Roll
Gospel formed a major part of the bedrock for early rock 'n' roll, and arguably no performer embodies that connection more than Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her playing style curved her gospel sides toward the folk blues tradition, opening the music up to a "hot gospel" treatment that raised eyebrows as often as it got tailfeathers shaking. Traditional listeners were often taken aback by Sister Tharpe's irreverent approach to sacred music, but mainstream audiences ate it up — and it proved an admitted influence for a wide cross-section of early rock and country artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. Little Richard, whose first non-church performance took place when Tharpe invited him on stage during one of her concerts in 1947, later credited her with making his entire career possible.
She was hugely popular at her peak, but Sister Tharpe's star quickly faded after rock's rise, and although a number of her most devout disciples have gone out of their way to acknowledge her — Johnny Cash named her as a formative influence during his own Rock Hall induction speech — her impact has all too often gone unacknowledged. And although rock scholarship has caught up with Tharpe in some ways in recent years, producing acclaimed works that argue the case for her status as the "godmother of rock 'n' roll," the Rock Hall won't truly live up to its name until she's inducted. It's time to finally make that happen.