Sister Rosetta Tharpe

- Born: March 20, 1915

- Died: Oct. 9, 1973

- Essential listening: “Rock Me” (1938) (bonus video: “Didn’t It Rain”)

- Who she inspired: Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry

Before there was Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, or Jimi Hendrix, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe inventing rock 'n' roll with her electric guitar. Tharpe had a good grasp on guitar-playing by age 6 and began playing in churches and on street corners while her mother proselytized. The Godmother of rock ‘n’ roll bounced around—from Arkansas where she was born, to Chicago, and eventually to New York City—and ultimately got in at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem where she was exposed to mass audiences. There, she became the first crossover gospel artist, performing worship songs as well as rock ‘n’ roll, which she was helping to birth. She’s the first to have used heavy distortion on her guitar, the first to have a gospel reach the R&B top 10 (“Strange Things Happening Every Day” in 1945), and, as a bisexual woman, a trailblazer for LGBTQ musicians.

She recorded her most influential song that most clearly lays the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll, “ Rock Me,” on Oct. 31, 1938—when Elvis was 3, Little Richard was 6, Chuck Berry was 12, and B.B. King was 13. When her guitar-playing was compared to that of man, Tharpe had a rebuttal ready: “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”

You can hear Tharpe’s “This Train” in Little Walter’s “My Babe;” see her eccentric movements in Elvis’ hips; and—lest you doubt her influence over greats like Chuck Berry, who once famously said he saw his career as “one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation”—see if the opening measures of “The Lord Followed Me” sound familiar.

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