Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll

Full Episode

The life, music and influence of African-American gospel singer and guitar virtuoso Sister Rosetta Tharpe. From writer, producer and director Mick Csaky.

Southern-born, Chicago-raised and New York-made, Sister Rosetta rose from poverty to become one of the world’s most popular gospel singers and the first to cross over successfully into mainstream popular music. She introduced the spiritual passion of gospel into the secular world of rock ’n’ roll, inspiring some of its greatest stars, including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard.

A natural-born performer and a rebel, “She could play the guitar like nobody else … nobody!” says Lottie Henry, a member of Tharpe’s back-up vocal group The Rosettes.

“Elvis loved Rosetta Tharpe,” attests Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires, who performed with both Sister Rosetta and Elvis. “Not only did he dig her guitar playing but he dug her singing too.”

The child of poor cotton pickers, Sister Rosetta was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. At the age of six, she was taken by her evangelist mother Katie Bell to Chicago to join the Church of God in Christ, where she developed her distinctive performing style. In 1938, at the age of 23, she briefly left the church for show business, causing huge controversy when she performed songs laden with sexual innuendo in New York City venues such as the famed Cotton Club and Café Society, where she immediately became a favorite of both Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. However, Sister Rosetta soon returned to her gospel roots and performed in packed churches and theaters throughout America and Europe, becoming one of America’s most distinctive recording stars on radio and television during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

The film features archival performances and new interviews with musicians, producers and friends, including Joe Boyd, tour manager of the 1964 American Folk, Blues and Gospel Caravan; Lottie Henry of The Rosettes; Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires; Howard Caroll of gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds, which toured frequently with Tharpe; Anthony Heilbut, gospel record producer and writer; life-long friend Roxie Moore; Ira Tucker, Jr., son of The Dixie Hummingbirds’ Ira Tucker, Sr.; Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald; and others.