Last week, the list of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees was announced, which included Dire Straits, The Moody Blues, Bon Jovi, The Cars, Nina Simone and most notably, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Gripe all you want about other overlooked and deserving Rock n Roll acts, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is extremely overdue for recognition. Coined the ‘Godmother of Rock n Roll,’ she was performing rock back when the ‘King of Rock’ Elvis Presley was still in diapers, releasing her single ‘Rock Me’ in 1938. She provided inspiration and paved the way for artists since, including Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry.
According to Gordon Stoker, the leader of Elvis’s backing band, Elvis ‘loved Sister Rosetta,’ especially her guitar playing. ‘That’s what really attracted Elvis: her pickin’. He liked her singing, but he liked that pickin’ first – because it was so different’. During his Theme Time Radio Hour show, Bob Dylan described Sister Rosetta Tharpe as “anything but ordinary and plain: she was a big, good-lookin’ woman, and divine, not to mention sublime and splendid. She was a powerful force of nature. A guitar-playin’, singin’ evangelist.” And more recently, famous country singer Miranda Lambert has been opening her concerts with a clip of Tharpe performing her track ‘Up Above My Head’.
There were many rumours about Sister Rosetta’s sexuality, according to Gayle Wald, author of Tharpe’s biography Shout, Sister, Shout!. Shortly after releasing her first solo, ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’, Tharpe teamed up with singer Marie Knight, who is rumoured to have had an ‘open secret relationship’ with Tharpe. One of Tharpe’s fellow musicians claims to have walked in on her in bed with two other women in 1951, shortly after her third wedding and during her honeymoon tour.
Wald writes, “The circulation of this and other lore indicated that the gospel world had its own legends of outlaw identities and behaviors: of sissy men and bulldagger women, of philandering evangelists and pilfering prophets, of hypocrites who boozed up backstage before singing in front of the curtain about the virtues of holy living. For homosexuals in her audiences, rumors about Rosetta’s sexuality might have been liberating, an invitation to look for tell-tale signs of affirmation of their own veiled existence.”
Fans of Tharpe argue that her long-overdue recognition is simply a result of Tharpe’s demographics: a black, queer woman. They hope that Tharpe’s induction will pave the way for other acts who have been overlooked as a result of their race, sexuality and gender.