Before Elvis and Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash. Before Aretha and Whitney and Beyonce. Before the blues met gospel and conceived rock ‘n’ roll, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
The first gospel superstar, Tharpe was a guitar hero in a flower-print dress whose bluesy chops and strutting style would be mimicked by countless acolytes, both white and black.
“I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock ‘n’ roll,” said one such devotee, Jerry Lee Lewis, of “Great Balls of Fire” fame. “She’s hitting that guitar, playing that guitar, and she is singing. I said, ‘Whoooo. Sister Rosetta Tharpe!’”
Though no longer a household name, Tharpe gets the star treatment in a new documentary for the PBS series American Masters. Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll will be broadcast Friday on PBS in honor of Black History Month.