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A Look At 2018 Rock Hall Inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe

01-18-2018
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Sister Rosetta Tharpe

(Gibson) The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sure has its critics, but arguably no artist has been more overdue for recognition than Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her induction into the Hall's "Influences" is coming in 2018 but it's more than just a victory for rockin' sisterhood, it's a long-awaited shout to a truly great artist. Don't know enough about her? Praise be, here's your guide to a true great and the first Lady Of Gibson...

Who was she?: Back in the day, music was even more sliced and diced into categories than it is now. However, if there was one "Gospel" artist who was the genre's breakout name, the first real crossover superstar, it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Sister Tharpe was rockin' before rockin' existed - her first hit (and it was even called "Rock Me"!) was way back in 1938, when Elvis was a mere toddler.

She was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915, and was, frankly, a remarkable prodigy. Rosetta was singing gospel in church by age six, and soon playing some mean guitar too. Via a move to Chicago, where her musical education exploded, she headed to New York City. Like a righteous gatecrasher, she was soon playing at the Cotton Club with Duke Ellington as her teens swung by, she played with Dizzy Gillespie, then with swing bandleader Lucky Millinder. She soon headed back south to tour with fellow gospel icons the Dixie Hummingbirds.

That first single of hers had come in 1938, and in 1945, her sassy single "Strange Things Happening Every Day" - with its hot guitar solo - was the first gospel single to cross over on the Billboard race charts, what we'd now call R&B. Amid all the claims for the "first rock'n'roll record" over the years, "Strange Things Happening Every Day" has as good a claim as any.

Signature Sounds: The thing is, it remains hard to categorize Rosetta Tharpe's music as it is broad. Pure Gospel, smooth jazz, horn-backed ballads, proto rock'n'roll jump rhythms, shredding guitar (yes!) - she covered a lot of bases. Her guitar playing though was notable, and she was one of the very first players to use distortion. Which for a gospel singer is pretty darn extraordinary.

Tharpe was a brilliant guitar player, yet almost never acknowledged in the annals of rock'n'roll. It shouldn't be a surprise really, even if it's wrong. The "accepted" tale of rock'n'roll - with Elvis as some sort of fountainhead - is the story of white men, and Sister Tharpe was, of course, neither white nor a man. But, whooa, she could play.

According to fellow gospel star of the day, Inez Andrews, "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." "She could play the guitar like nobody else nobody!" added Lottie Henry, a member of Tharpe's back-up vocal group The Rosettes.

And plenty others were wowed by her. Chuck Berry was a fan (you can clearly hear her influence on his double-stop licks and his songs), so was Little Richard (she was also a brilliant pianist), Isaac Hayes and Elvis himself was a massive devotee. "Elvis loved Rosetta Tharpe," attests Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires, who backed both Sister Rosetta and Elvis. "Not only did he dig her guitar playing, but he dug her singing too." here.

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