Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Gospel Singer Who Became the Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the pantheon of great rock musicians, one figure is often excluded. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who wailed on the electric guitar before Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry were even fully grown adults, has gone largely unheralded since her roaring career in the 1940s. As a bold black woman who sang gospel music in nightclubs and got church audiences dancing in the pews, she was an eccentric figure in her time, but she has since been crowded out in the collective memory by newer, flashier acts. But historically, rock music starts with Sister Rosetta, and its history is incomplete without her.

Rosetta Nubin grew up in Arkansas with music all around her, including a singing, mandolin-playing mother and membership in a black evangelical church that encouraged worship through song. At age 4, she joined her mother onstage, guitar in hand; by age 6, the hype was already building around the “singing and guitar playing miracle” touring with her mother’s group of traveling gospel performers. At age 19, she married a Pentecostal preacher, Thomas Thorpe, and although their marriage soon fell apart, she adopted a variation of his surname as the stage name that would follow her over three decades and as many marriages.

Like so many musicians, Tharpe moved to New York City, which quickly escalated her career. Her inclusion in the Christmas 1938 "From Spirituals to Swing" concert series at Carnegie Hall marked a breakout moment, when her name was billed alongside established jazz musicians like Count Basie and Big Joe Turner. She was a regular at music venues around town, especially at the Cotton Club with Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. Decca Records signed Sister Rosetta to record four songs, which comprised the company’s first-ever gospel offerings, and all four were met with widespread acclaim. This marked the first occasion a faith-based singer garnered widespread praise from non-religious listeners. “That’s All,” recorded during that time with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra backing her, was Tharpe’s first recorded performance on the electric guitar—the instrument that would soon become her calling card.

By the 1940s, Sister Rosetta was considered a superstar. Her first two decades of album releases consistently delivered hits. In 1945, “Strange Things Happening Every Day” hit No. 2 on what is today known as Billboard’s R&B charts. “Down By The Riverside,” a huge crowd-pleaser around the same time, was selected almost 60 years later by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Recording Registry as an example of the unique, spirited style that influenced so many musicians to come. When a Billboard music critic used the term “rock-and-roll” in 1942 to describe a distinct style of music, he was using it specifically to describe Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

For a lifelong church-going woman, Sister Rosetta was extremely liberal in her choice of performing venues. She played churches and secular clubs alike, including New York City venues with mixed-race audiences, which both energized and scandalized listeners. As if it weren’t enough to see a black woman put herself forward as a performer—on the electric guitar, no less—Tharpe intentionally played for audiences of saints and sinners alike, singing about heaven on Sunday mornings and wanting “a tall skinny papa” on Saturday nights. Various anecdotes indicate that she cursed freely, wore pants, and engaged in relationships with women as well as men, none of which she considered at odds with her personal faith, no matter how many fingers and tongues wagged.

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Tharpe was comfortable in the role of a true rock star, making appearances in high heels and rhinestone-embellished dresses that belied the rip-roaring performance she would unleash with just a Gibson guitar and her own powerful voice. She split her time between two houses and, like any great musician of the era who had “made it,” drove a flashy Cadillac. When Tharpe married for the third time in 1951, her flair for showmanship informed the wedding celebrations. The ceremony took place outdoors at D.C.'s Griffith Stadium (then home to MLB team the Washington Senators) before an audience of 25,000 paying ticket-holders. The packed stands of well-wishers were treated not only to the thrill of a celebrity wedding, but also to a one-of-a-kind performance by Tharpe in her wedding dress, followed by fireworks overhead.

The backlash from conservative members of the Christian community took its toll on Tharpe, who eventually wilted under their disapproval of her ungodly music. She had spent much of the 1940s teaming up with gospel singer Marie Knight to record traditional favorites, and the two became famous for their duets, including “Up Above My Head,” which charted at No. 6 during the height of their collaboration. But shortly after her extravagant nuptials, Tharpe made a mostly innocuous career move that ultimately had terrible consequences. Having paid sufficient tribute to the spirituals on which they were raised, Tharpe and Knight deviated from their established songbook and recorded a secular blues album—which flopped. Their still largely religious fanbase took this new direction as an affront to the church, and the disapproval was keenly felt as Tharpe’s audience dwindled.

Tharpe’s waning popularity in the United States drove her to seek greener pastures in venues around Europe, after she was first invited to tour the UK with trombonist Chris Barber and his band. She continued to enjoy a modest following across the Atlantic, but fell increasingly into obscurity as she was overshadowed by Mahalia Jackson, the new grand dame of gospel. A crop of young, white men whose rocking and rolling was indebted to Sister Rosetta’s trailblazing style were, however unintentionally, making her more faith-based music seem old-fashioned and retrograde. She continued performing through the '60s, but in 1973, at age 58, she died after suffering a second stroke. The Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia—her husband had failed to provide a headstone.

Until her death, Sister Rosetta remained a powerful singer, belting loud enough to match the amplifiers that she insisted on setting to full volume. Musicians like Johnny Cash and Little Richard grew up on the sound of her voice, both citing her as their favorite singer. Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin, and Tina Turner also credited her sound and stage presence as formative influences on their own careers. Interestingly, critics have suggested that Tharpe's broad appeal may actually have contributed to her faltering legacy. Because Sister Rosetta could call no single genre—not gospel, not blues, not pop, not rock—her own, history has left her stranded without any genre at all.

Nevertheless, Tharpe was influential beyond her mere talent as a singer. Gordon Stoker, leader of Elvis’s backing band, spoke about how her innovative, expert style of guitar playing inspired The King. In Stoker’s words, Tharpe’s picking stood out “because it was so different.” Her 1944 take on “Down By The Riverside” demonstrates the extent of her virtuosity, as she tears into a pulsating solo that foretold the rhythms that rock 'n' roll would popularize. Bob Dylan aptly summed her up as “a force of nature.” Her proto-rock influence was such that an audience in Manchester, as she launched into her rousing rendition of old gospel standard “Didn’t It Rain,” began to clap—on the backbeats. The Guardian suggests that this may have been “the first recorded example of that phenomenon in a land where mass clapping on the first and third beats of the bar had hitherto been a deadening ritual.” Sister Rosetta didn’t just have soul; she coaxed it out of others.

As successive generations of hitmakers themselves grew older and old-fashioned, music historians began to take notice of Sister Rosetta once more, in light of her profound influence. In 1998, the postal service issued a commemorative stamp featuring her smiling broadly, a sign of the momentum that built up to her posthumous, much belated induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2008, January 11 was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day by the state of Pennsylvania, which later granted her former home an official historical marker. In 2009, the proceeds from a benefit concert organized by a fan funded the purchase of a headstone for Sister Rosetta, engraved with the title “Gospel Music Legend” and a quote from her friend Roxie Moore: “She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing."

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20 Fun Facts About "Weird Al" Yankovic

Kyle Cassidy, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Kyle Cassidy, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Starting with his first professional recordings and appearances on the Dr. Demento radio show decades ago, "Weird Al" Yankovic—who was born in Downey, California, on October 23, 1959—has managed to stay on the pop culture map and change with the times, even as so many of the bands and artists he has parodied have faded out of the spotlight. Here are some facts about "Weird Al" Yankovic and his songs.

1. “Weird Al” Yankovic's parents chose the accordion for him.

The legend—verified by Al Yankovic in the liner notes of his 1994 box set Permanent Record: Al in the Box—reads that on the day before Al turned 7, a door-to-door salesman came through Lynwood, California, to solicit business for a local music school, which offered its pupils a choice between guitar or accordion lessons. Because Frankie Yankovic shared the family's surname and was known as "America's Polka King," Al's parents chose the squeezebox for their son. Al would gradually learn how to play rock n' roll on the instrument, mostly from Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, playing it "over and over" and trying to play along with it. Frankie and Al weren't actually related, but the two would eventually collaborate, with Al playing on "Who Stole the Kishka?" on Frankie's Songs of the Polka King, Vol. 1, and Frankie's "The Tick Tock Polka" played by Al as a lead-in to Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" on the Alpocalypse track "Polka Face."

2. Weird Al skipped the second grade.

Al attended kindergarten one year early and skipped the second grade, and his scholastic promotion was not popular with his older classmates. "I got my fair share of verbal abuse, but I learned to run pretty fast so I didn't get beat up a lot," Yankovic said. He said that when he wasn't running away, his recess time was often spent pretending to be Mr. Terrific, a TV character that took a power pill to make him a superhero. Yankovic would graduate Lynwood High School at the age of 16 as valedictorian.

3. Al Yankovic added the "Weird" to his name in college.

Yankovic was referred to by his full first name "Alfred" throughout childhood. It wasn't until he attended California Polytechnic State University looking for a degree in architecture that "Weird" became attached to Al Yankovic permanently. Al got a gig with the campus radio station playing records on Wednesdays from midnight to 3 a.m. and needed a DJ name, christening himself "Weird Al." It would take Yankovic time to sneak in any "weird" music that was not considered a part of the college station's format (New Wave music), but the moniker was his tribute to the comedy and novelty song playing radio broadcaster Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen), who gave Yankovic's earliest compositions some airplay.

4. "Weird Al" Yankovic's "My Bologna" was recorded in a bathroom.

In 1979, while he was still in college, Yankovic recorded his parody of The Knack's "My Sharona" in the acoustic-tiled bathroom across the hall from the college radio station, finding a microphone cord long enough to reach back to KCPR-FM's tape deck to make it possible. The song got a huge positive response on Dr. Demento's show, but "My Bologna" was the song that turned Yankovic's hobby into a career thanks to a backstage meeting with The Knack after a campus concert. Fortuitously, Rupert Perry, the VP of Capitol Records, was also present when Knack lead singer Doug Feiger professed to liking Al's parody. Yankovic remembered Feiger turning to Perry and saying, "'You guys oughta put this song out on Capitol Records." Perry agreed, and Al soon signed a six-month contract.

5. "weird Al" Yankovic doesn't legally have to seek out permission to parody an artist's song, but he asks for it anyway.

Under the "fair use" provision of U.S. copyright law, Yankovic and others do not need permission from original artists to satirize their work, as long as royalties are paid. But to stay on friendly terms with other artists in the industry, Weird Al asks for permission before recording anyway.

When he was still wet behind the ears, Al also discovered that if you don't seek out original artist approval, you can have a tough time getting a label to release your latest single. In 1981, Weird Al released "Another One Rides The Bus," a parody of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," without asking the band, and before TK Records agreed to a deal. It would turn out to be TK Records' last single release, as the company abruptly closed down citing financial trouble. Yankovic decided to go ahead and make his first national TV appearance on April 21, 1981 on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, and Queen eventually gave the song their blessing (though guitarist Brian May referred to him as "Mad Al").

6. Some musicians and record labels have denied “Weird Al” Yankovic permission to parody their songs.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Hilarity For Charity

Yankovic has said that only "about 2 to 3 percent" of the time does he get a "no" from an artist or record label, but there have been notable rejections. Even though Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is a fan, he indicated he would not approve of a polka medley of Zeppelin tunes. Still, a sample of "Black Dog" was allowed in a "Trapped in the Closet" parody. Paul McCartney didn't give permission for Wings' "Live and Let Die" because the altered version would have been "Chicken Pot Pie," which would have gone against McCartney's vegetarianism.

In some cases, the artist agrees but is overruled by the label. James Blunt initially said that it would be a "huge compliment" to have "You're Beautiful" changed to "You're Pitiful," but Atlantic Records rescinded authorization (Yankovic released his version as a free MySpace download to avoid starting trouble with Atlantic).

In an example of a no being turned into a yes, Daniel Powter initially refused to have his "Bad Day" parodied as "You Had a Bad Date," but changed his mind. Powter had the change of heart "literally the day before" Weird Al recorded "White & Nerdy" (the music video of which has Al vandalizing Atlantic Records' Wikipedia entry), and by then "the train had left the station."

7. One group's fans threw things at Weird Al and his band for 45 minutes

In 1982, Weird Al and his newly formed band played at their first major gig—and it was a profound disaster. The band opened for the then-popular New Wave band Missing Persons at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where they were on the receiving end of assorted thrown objects for their entire 45 minute set. Yankovic remembered his band scrambling for the loose change as soon as the curtain went down.

The ignominy didn't end indoors: "I was walking to my car in the parking lot, and this 12 year old boy comes up to me and says 'Are you Weird Al?' I said yes, and he said 'YOU SUCK!' That was the capper of the evening." After that, the band agreed to never play as anyone's opening act and to just be the headliner of smaller shows—a rule they wouldn't break for five years until agreeing to open for The Monkees in 1987. Their fans were far more civil.

8. "I Lost On Jeopardy" might have played a part in getting Jeopardy! back on the air.

This is the general timeline of events: Jeopardy! started as a daytime game show on NBC from 1964-1975, hosted by Art Fleming, with Don Pardo (later of SNL fame) as the announcer. On December 12, 1983, Weird Al recorded "I Lost On Jeopardy." The single, which referred to the NBC version of the show, was released on June 4, 1984; the music video, starring Fleming and Pardo, had been filmed two weeks earlier. Sometime in between the recording of the song and the shooting of the video, Griffin was asked to pair his already-popular Wheel of Fortune with another half-hour game show, and at some point he re-discovered Jeopardy!. Griffin invited Yankovic to perform his song on June 29, 1984 and talked with him briefly afterwards, saying that with the great success of the single, Jeopardy! was coming back on the air. Whether Griffin was being tongue-in-cheek, or just exaggerating, or hedging his bets if the revival failed, Jeopardy! returned on September 10, 1984 with new host Alex Trebek. Despite some programmers initially putting the show on during unpopular morning and late night hours, the revival would become an television institution, and generate many losers.

9. "Like A Surgeon" was Madonna's idea.

Reportedly, Madonna and an unnamed friend made history while talking one day. Madonna wondered aloud when Weird Al would turn "Like a Virgin" into "Like a Surgeon." The friend was a mutual friend of Yankovic's manager Jay Levey. Levey then told Yankovic, and soon it became the first single and video from the Dare To Be Stupid album. It was the first and last time a musician successfully offered a suggestion to Yankovic, who openly discourages people from giving him parody ideas.

10. Michael Jackson was a fan of Weird Al’s music.

Weird Al didn't think that Michael Jackson would agree to a parody of "Beat It," but was pleasantly surprised to hear from his representatives that Michael thought "Eat It" was funny. Years later, when Yankovic came up with the idea for "Fat" for Jackson's "Bad," Jackson not only agreed to the parody, but told him he could use the set from his "Badder" music video for "Fat," which went on to win the 1988 Grammy for Best Concept Music Video.

The two met in person twice: The first time was backstage at one of Michael's shows, where Weird Al presented Jackson with a gold record of the album Even Worse. The second time was after a TV show taping, where Jackson said he would screen UHF to his friends at Neverland Ranch. When the two were studio neighbors working on their respective albums, Al would occasionally receive a little note in the door reading "Hello from next door," signed "Love, MJ."

11. Despite being a fan of the comedic performer, Michael Jackson wouldn’t let “Weird Al” record a parody of "Black or White."

"Snack All Night" was slated to be Yankovic's interpretation of "Black or White," but Michael "wasn't quite so into it." The fact that Jackson considered "Black or White" a "message" song made him uncomfortable with any comedy undercutting it. Weird Al later admitted that Jackson did him a "huge favor," helping him avoid becoming someone just known as the guy doing Michael Jackson parodies, and steering him towards his commercial success in 1992 lampooning Nirvana instead. While "Snack All Night" has never been recorded in a studio, it has been played a few times at Weird Al shows.

12. “Weird Al” Yankovic wrote a song in 1986 called "Christmas At Ground Zero."

The 1986 single off of Polka Party! was a response by Weird Al to the Scotti Bros. record label, who had been trying to get him to record a Christmas song for two years. There's some debate as to whether or not radio stations banned the record, but the macabre nature of the song, which is set in a world where a nuclear war is about to break out, limited its commercial airplay anyway. The term "ground zero" changing from a general description of where some sort of detonation took place to a term associated with the events of September 11th made radio airplay even scarcer—although Dr. Demento claims it's still a favorite of his listeners, and was the most requested Christmas song since "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."

13. Nirvana revitalized Weird Al's career.

After the commercial failure of 1989's UHF (despite its Neverland Ranch popularity), Yankovic returned to the recording studio in June 1990 to record original songs for a new album. When it came time to record the parodies, he ran into a problem: There was nothing good to make fun of. After getting turned down by Michael Jackson with "Black and White," Al was open to discover Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which Yankovic changed to "Smells Like Nirvana." The song made fun of the fact that it was nearly impossible to understand Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain's words. The Nirvana album Nevermind and its instantly iconic cover of a baby chasing a dollar bill underwater gave Al the concept for his album, which he titled Off the Deep End, alluding to the cover art of Yankovic swimming after a doughnut on a fishhook. In the "Smells Like Nirvana" music video, Al even used the same janitor in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, as well as some of the cheerleaders.

14. Coolio was not at all cool about “Amish Paradise.”

After "Amish Paradise," Weird Al always made sure to speak directly with the artists and never to rely on their management. The 1996 song based on "Gangsta's Paradise" annoyed Coolio at the time, saying something that indicated Michael Jackson's influence: "I ain't with that. No. I didn't give it any sanction. I think that my song was too serious. It ain't like it was 'Beat It.' 'Beat It' was a party song. But I think 'Gangsta's Paradise' represented something more than that. And I really, honestly and truly, don't appreciate him desecrating the song like that."

Weird Al apologized, claiming that Coolio's managers and label gave Yankovic the belief that Coolio was OK with the parody. One year later, Coolio rapped the couplet, "Fools be in the bars unadvanced with a switch/Uppercuts and fight kicks with Weird Al Yankovich" on his song "Throwdown 2000." Coolio eventually got over it, and approached Yankovic at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show to make peace.

Asked later about the whole incident, Coolio said he really thought it out. "I was like, 'Wait a minute.' I was like, 'Coolio, who the f—k do you think you are? He did Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson didn't get mad,'" adding that complaining about "Amish Paradise" was "one of the dumbest things I did in my career" and that the parody was "funny as sh--." Coolio claimed that Al invited him to appear in Weird Al's 3-D film Al's Brain, but the money figure wasn't to the rapper's satisfaction.

15. Prince repeatedly refused to be parodied, and didn’t want Weird Al to even look at him.

Throughout the '80s and early '90s, Yankovic repeatedly asked for permission to satirize Prince's work, but was always denied—to the point where he eventually got the hint. To seemingly indicate that it was personal, Al received a telegram for Prince's lawyers the night before an American Music Awards demanding that he not make eye contact with the Minnesota native. Yankovic would later learn that other musicians that were also seated within Prince's vicinity received the same note, and admitted that he looked at him a few times.

16. Eminem denied permission to make a music video for the "Lose Yourself" parody.

Even though Eminem agreed to allow "Lose Yourself" to be parodied in audio form as "Couch Potato," he refused permission to make a music video of the song. Yankovic claimed that Eminem's reasoning was that it would "be harmful to his image or career." The video would have been a pastiche of scenes from other Eminem videos. Because every first single from Yankovic was typically heavily promoted by a music video, this scrapped all plans to make "Couch Potato" the lead single on Weird Al's 2003 album Poodle Hat.

17. "White & Nerdy" is the highest charting song of Weird Al's career.

Chamillionaire couldn't be happier when Weird Al parodied his "Ridin'," claiming that it gave the song "mega-record" status and credited it for giving him the 2007 Grammy for Best Rap Performance By a Duo or Group. The "White & Nerdy" video has amassed over 86 million views on YouTube as of this writing, and features Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele years before their popular Comedy Central show Key & Peele went on the air. It was and currently is Yankovic's only Billboard Top 100 hit to make the top 10, peaking at #9 on the chart in the United States.

18. Weird Al mistakenly thought Lady Gaga did not approve of his "Born This Way" parody.

Al was finished with writing and recording his 2011 album Alpocalypse, his follow-up to 2006's Straight Outta Lynwood, but delayed its release for months to wait for one big hit to record a parody version of to release as a first single to start the album's promotion. "Perform This Way" was his take on the suddenly popular Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," but after being told by Gaga's manager that she wanted to read the lyrics and hear a recorded version first, Yankovic was ultimately told he was denied permission in April 2011. Resigned to having to delay the album's release further and record another song, Al posted "Perform This Way" on YouTube so his work wouldn't completely go to waste. Within the day of its posting and its subsequent positive reviews from social media, it came out that Lady Gaga never heard the song in the first place, and she actually loved it. By the end of that day, Alpocalypse's release date was set.

19. Singer Don McLean has confused his own “American Pie” with Weird Al's version in concert.

"The Saga Begins" finds Yankovic as Obi-Wan Kenobi recounting the plot of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace to the tune of Don McLean's "American Pie." Yankovic managed to write the lyrics based on spoilers he had read on the internet leading up to the movie's release. He attended a $500-a-ticket pre-screening for charity just to make sure his information was correct, and claimed to only need to make a couple of minor tweaks to the song. George Lucas was a fan, but Don McLean might no longer be so much of one. According to Yankovic, McLean's children started to play "The Saga Begins" so much in his home that when McLean performed "American Pie" in concert, he would lose focus and sing bits of "The Saga Begins" by accident.

20. The number 27 comes up often in "Weird Al" Yankovic's work.

At first, Yankovic used the number 27 just because it fit well as a lyric and because it was a "pretty funny number." When a fan called attention to the references to 27 in the "Like a Surgeon" and "This is the Life" videos, Weird Al started to use the number more often. Some references are straightforward, such as Al claiming to have eaten every Twinkie on 27th Avenue in "Fat," or the seeing a Take 27 on the clapboard during the faked moon landing scene in the "Foil" video. Some connections are tenuous, such as the factoid that Yankovic traveled 28,457 miles in his 2010 tour, 2 and 7 being the first and last digits of that number.