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Meet Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the godmother of rock and roll music

Sister Rosetta Tharpe is an Arkansas native known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll. Though her impact wasn't always recognized, she inspired some of the greats.

ARKANSAS, USA — You may have never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an Arkansas native known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll, whose musical footprint from the 1940s is only just being brought to light.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a groundbreaking musician who paved the way for new artists and genres.

“Folk, Rock, R&B, Boogie Woogie, Jazz, Blues and Gospel at a minimum were all of the genres that she had a great deal of impact on,” University of Arkansas at Little Rock music professor Dr. Rolf Groesbeck said. “She was one of the first charismatic solo female singers in gospel music. She was recording in the late 1930s.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe didn't just sing gospel, she altered it. Instead of using a piano, like male gospel singers before her, she played an electric guitar.

"One, she was a woman playing the guitar, which is very unusual at that time, because the guitar was associated with blues.. and it was associated with men,” Dr. Groesbeck said.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe continued to surprise people with her music. In the mid-1940s, she worked with a trio that introduced a new genre of music called "Boogie Woogie".

In addition to singing, she also incorporated dance into her performances, which was something new and different at the time.

According to Dr. Groesbeck, her dancing inspired others, including the person people remember as the hip-moving king, Elvis Presley.

“She didn't just stand in one place and sing, she just moved and she just moved in a very, very free way,” Dr. Groesbeck said. “I think a lot of his onstage presence owes a lot to her as well. They said she's doing something like what is morphing into rock and roll now."

And that's what solidified Sister Rosetta Tharpe as the Godmother of Rock and Roll.

Credit: KTHV

When she went abroad and gave tours in the 50s and 60s, some of the people at the tours were guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, these kinds of big rock and roll guitarists, they said, 'Sister Rosetta Tharpe, that's like our inspiration,'" Dr. Groesbeck said.

Unfortunately, while she may have inspired the next wave of rock and roll and its artists, her name was sadly never accredited to it.

Artists like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard are names that typically came to mind instead of Sister Rosetta Tharpe when thinking of rock and roll.

“It was hard for African Americans to sell their music for white audiences," Dr. Groesbeck said.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe's impact was almost erased due to this.

“We'll accept the white musicians doing it, but we won't accept the African Americans who inspire that,” Dr. Groesbeck said. “That sort of thing was just so much a part of the early to mid 20th century, and it's ended up with the erasure I think of a lot of African American musicians.”

However, Sister Rosetta Tharpe finally got the recognization she deserved in 2018 when she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"I think bringing Sister Rosetta Tharpe into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a way of saying we're going to do that and we're not going to have ironclad boundaries, because rock and roll itself doesn't," Dr. Groesbeck said

Here in Arkansas, locals paid tribute to the boundaries she broke.

A mural can be seen off of Main Street in downtown Little Rock that depicts the Arkansas native with guitar in hand and the words of her song 'Shout Sister Shout'.

"As a creative, painting someone who is also a creative, who never received recognition in her lifetime, that's a hard truth," Jessica Jones, the lead muralist said.

Despite this, Jones is happy that people will finally get familiar with the Godmother of Rock and Roll.

"She had such an impact and for so long didn't get recognition,” Jones said. “You know, I think it's, it's never too late."

It’s never too late is a sentiment Dr. Groesbeck echos, because as he explains many genres pay homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, even if they don't realize it.

"So it's like, if it was important to Elvis, it was important to Jeff Beck and so forth, it's important to us we need to know more about this sort of thing,” Dr. Groesbeck said. “You have to understand all aspects of the historical process and Sister Rosetta Tharpe is so much a germ of foundation from which a great deal of this music came."

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