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Listen to powerful songs by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing in Cardiff, Wales, November 1957. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing in Cardiff, Wales, November 1957. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)Chris Ware/Getty Images

by Luke Taylor

February 17, 2020

Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a founder of rock and roll. An innovator with vocals and electric guitar, Tharpe's sound would influence artists including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan — and therefore everyone whom those artists went on to influence. As The Current celebrates Black History Month, we're spotlighting Sister Rosetta Tharpe on Monday, Feb. 17.

Born Rosetta Nubin in Arkansas in 1915, she was encouraged by her mother to pursue music and to perform in church. Eventually settling in New York City in the late 1930s following the end of her first marriage, Tharpe (whose surname is a variation on her first husband's name, Thorpe) recorded four tracks for Decca Records in 1938.

In 1944, Tharpe released her version of the old-time song, "Down By The Riverside," a song the Library of Congress added to the National Recording Registry in 2004, saying the song "captures her spirited guitar playing and unique vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early rhythm-and-blues performers."

When Tharpe released a song called "Strange Things Happening Every Day" in 1945, it made the jump from gospel to R&B, striking the template for what we know as rock and roll.

In the spring of 1964, Sister Rosetta Tharpe participated in a European tour called the Blues and Gospel Caravan, which included other American music luminaries like Muddy Waters and blues pianist Otis Spann. It was during that tour's stop in Manchester, England, that Tharpe performed at an abandoned railway station — a performance that was captured on film, showcasing Tharpe's musicianship and live stage presence.

In 2007, Tharpe was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and 10 years later, she was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (singer-songwriter Frank Turner sings about this). This year, the Recording Academy — the people behind the Grammy Awards — announced the 2020 Special Merit Awards recipients, and among the Lifetime Achievement Award honorees is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She, along with the other honorees, will be celebrated at a special award presentation ceremony and concert on April 18 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in California.

Here are some of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's iconic recordings.

"Rock Me" (1938)

"Strange Things Happening Every Day" (1945)

" Up Above My Head" (live TV performance, circa 1960)

"Didn't It Rain"; "Trouble In Mind" (live performances, Manchester, 1964)

Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll - American Masters (PBS)