There’s something so undeniably bad-ass about a woman wielding a guitar. There have been many, many cool Caucasian bellas who have made their mark behind the axe. To wit — click here for Outside Left’s Top 12 Hottest Female Guitarists Ever, which includes the one and only Joan Jett, Poison Ivy from The Cramps, and The Breeders’ Kelley Deal. And keep in mind those are just the quote-unquote “hot” white female guitarists. I can think of far fewer black guitar heroines who many people actually know about.
In the beginning, there was Memphis Minnie, whose most famous recordings were “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and “When the Levee Breaks.” Barbara Lynn made the electric guitar a cool part of the soul scene in the Sixties (do yourself a favor and enjoy that clip, her version of “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” is my favorite. Even moreso than Aretha’s, and that’s saying a lot.) There have been folkies like Odetta, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, and Sparla Swa, as well as tough, soulful rocker chicks like Meshell Ndegeocello and Felicia Collins. One of my all-time favorite black female guitarists is gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She brought rock n’ roll to the church, and infused gospel with the blues. Despite the negative reaction of her religious base, she brought a fresh energy to her genre. Sister Rosetta was one of the first recording artists to play lead guitar, and she was the biggest crossover star in gospel music, before Mighty Mahalia made her mark in the Sixties.
Her mother played mandolin, and Little Rosetta Nubin started playing guitar when she was all of four years old. The family moved from Cotton Plant, Arkansas to Chicago in the 1920’s. Little Rosetta started to enjoy the sounds of blues and jazz, but she never played secular music in public in those years. By the thirties, Sister Rosetta was making waves on the gospel circuit, playing her heart out and praising the Lord through her fretwork. Click here for an amazing NPR feature, that plays audio samples of her groundbreaking guitar work in 1938.
Her style was flamboyant, she liked her hair close-cropped, curly, and brightly colored. She had a big smile, a sense of humor and a whole lot of sass. Sister Rosetta saw her talent as God given, and so she didn’t follow the conservative ways of her fan base. She performed at the Cotton Club and CafÃ© Society with Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman. She got divorced when she was unhappy in her marriage. In fact, she was married three times — a rumored 10,000 fans attended her third wedding, held at a concert at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in 1951. She strutted from the dugout to the second base, said her vows, then strapped on her Gibson and rocked out in her wedding dress.
Her biggest hit was Down By the Riverside, and if that clip doesn’t leave your toes a-tappin’, I don’t know what will. She filmed an adorable and funny version of Didn’t It Rain — You can see it embedded on her MySpace page, which is lovingly maintained and features a wealth of video clips. One of those clips is an interview with Marie Knight, Sister Rosetta’s duet partner. The pair were largely shunned by the conservative gospel community after recording secular blues songs.
Her 1945 crossover hit â€œStrange Things Happening Every Dayâ€ poked gentle fun at religious hypocrisy. (Hear a snippet in the music samples for her awesome album, The Gospel of Blues). In songs like “That’s All,” she downcries those who “jump from church to church,” and pretend to have religion. She used her powerful voice and chops to hit back at hypocrites and parasites. Check her out in a late-period performance, growling her way through “That’s All,” and shouting out “Didn’t It Rain.”
Despite her conviction in her faith and the inspiring range of her talent, she was ultimately rejected by her own audience as so many crossover artists were back then. She was well-recieved in Europe for many years, but returned to America and the gospel circuit in the Sixties to diminished response. Still, she persevered and was part of the blues and gospel revival of the late Sixties. In 1970, Sister Rosetta suffered a stroke that robbed her of the use of her legs. In 1973, the day before she was scheduled to record a new album, she suffered another stroke and passed away. She was just fifty eight years old.
This beautifully written Gibson guitar tribute puts her accomplishments into eloquent perspective: “In hindsight, nearly everything Rosetta accomplished as a musician seems ahead of its timeâ€”sometimes not by years, but by decades. Felled by a stroke in 1973, when she was fifty-eight, she didnâ€™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, itâ€™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 and rollers 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. ”
It also reveals that she has suffered a fate like so many of our jazz, blues, R&B, soul, and gospel legends have. “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.”
It’s taken decades, but now the legacy of Sister Rosetta is being remembered and celebrated. British rock band The Noisettes (who are led by fierce British/Zimbabwean singer and bassist Shingai Shoniwa), have a song titled Sister Rosetta (Capture The Spirit), that totally rocks. Gayle F. Wald has written Shout Sister Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and artists like Odetta, Michelle Shocked, and Sweet Honey in the Rock pay musical homage on companion album Shout Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Wanna get even deeper into Sister Rosetta? Check out Original Soul Sister, a four CD box set that reveals the breadth of her virtuosity.
For her strength, her creativity, her originality, and her message, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is Afrobella of the Week!