In West Oak Lane’s Northwood Cemetery, there now lies a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is one of 19 acts nominated to the Hall on Thursday, appearing alongside well-known performers like political rock outfit Rage Against the Machine, singer Nina Simone, and New Jersey’s own Bon Jovi (now a repeat nominee).
If the name sounds familiar, that’s probably because she was inducted into the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame on Wednesday for her role in establishing the sound of early rock and roll music.
She isn’t a household name these days, like prolific RATM guitarist Tom Morello or Jon Bon Jovi, Tharpe nonetheless is known as “the Godmother of Rock and Roll” due to her influence on early rock musicians like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
By most accounts Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas to mother Katie Bell Nubin, a singer and evangelist. Tharpe began performing music with her mother onstage at an early age, and reportedly was a regular on stage by age six.
After marrying a preacher named Thomas Thorpe when she was 19, Tharpe decided to change her stage name to include a version of her husband’s last name. Even though her marriage only lasted short time, the stage name stuck.
Tharpe attempted to bridge gospel with more modern music and secular influence, eventually leading her to move to New York City in 1938, where she was signed by Decca Records. That move resulted in hits such as “The Lonesome Road,” “My Man and I,” and “Rock Me,” and cemented Tharpe as an early popular gospel singer.
In the 1940s, Tharpe turned even more toward the burgeoning sound of rock ‘n’ roll. She worked with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra to produce songs like “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” and “That’s All,” the latter of which was the first track featuring Tharpe on electric guitar.
Her popularity skyrocketed during that era thanks to a near-constant tour schedule, and during World War II, Tharpe was one of just two African-American gospel artists to record a V-Disc, an album specifically made for American soldiers at war. Tharpe subsequently performed with music legends like Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, and John Hammond, among others.
In 1944, Tharpe joined blues pianist Sammy Price for a series of tracks that defined the early sound of rock even further. Among them were “Strange Things Happening Every Day” and “Two Little Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread,” both of which combined gospel topics with jazzy, rock music sounds.
Throughout her career, Tharpe would come to release more than a dozen albums that included charting hits like “Precious Memories” and “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air),” both from 1948:
According to PhillyJazz.US, Tharpe moved to Philadelphia in 1957. She lived in the city’s Yorktown section, where a historical marker was erected outside her home at 11th and Master in 2011.
After a relatively low-key period in the 1960s, Tharpe joined blues legend Muddy Waters for a European tour in 1970, but fell ill. After returning home to the U.S. that year, she had a stroke, and later had to have a leg amputated due to complications from diabetes.
Three years later, at age 58, Tharpe died of a second stroke in Philadelphia, reportedly just prior to attending a recording session, according to FindAGrave.com. She was buried in Northwood Cemetery.
Today, Tharpe is remembered for her early rock influence and unique guitar playing. According to playwright George Brant, who wrote the musical Marie and Rosetta about Tharpe, just about every major guitar-driven artist has Tharpe to thank for their platform.
“Chuck Berry borrowed her guitar stylings and Little Richard said she was responsible for his career. Elvis Presley counted her as an influence and even Jimi Hendrix once said he just wanted to play like Rosetta,” Brant told the Daily Beast last year. “Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash have all cited her as influences—which makes it even more frustrating that she fell out of fashion.”