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“The Godmother of Rock and Roll"

If you wonder where the sound of rock and roll guitar came from, look to a woman from Arkansas.

“The Godmother of Rock and Roll,” February 26, 2024


I stopped by the office the other day of a friend of mine who’s the manager of Baylor’s audio-visual digitization studio. At that moment he was busy digitizing an old album from 1938. Turns out it was a song by a gospel singer known as Sister Rosetta Tharp called “Rock Me.” He told me it was her first recording. This was an interesting coincidence because I had been thinking of her earlier in the day for some reason. She’s one of the most important figures in shaping what we think of as the blues sound and, therefore, even a good bit of rock and roll.

Rosetta Nubin was born on March 20, 1915, in a little Arkansas town called Cotton Plant. Like with so many other central figures of American music in the 20th century, she grew up with music in church. She learned guitar before she was five and was soon playing and singing alongside her mandolin-playing mom. She was touted as a “guitar-playing miracle.”

She and her mom moved to Chicago in the 1920s which was then a center of the national music scene, attracting players from Louis Armstrong to Muddy Waters. From there she moved on to New York City in the 1930s where she married a preacher named Thomas Tharp in 1934. She signed with Decca Records in 1938 and then made the recording my friend was working on.

It was her guitar playing that set her apart. She didn’t just strum along while she sang. She played notes and melodies and riffs. She also used distortion in her sound, basically creating what later came to be expected as the rock and roll guitar sound. Reflecting that, in October 2023 Rolling Stone listed her at #6 on its list of the 250 greatest guitarists of all time. In case you’re wondering, and I know you are, she was right above Nile Rogers at #7 and right below Jeff Beck at #5.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, into which she was inducted in 2018 describes her as “America’s first gospel rock star” and that she “paved the way for rock & roll to grip new audiences.” It praises her “roaring mastery of her trusted Gibson SG, which she wielded on a level that rivaled the best of her contemporaries.”

Legendary American musicians like Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash all regarded her as a major influence. And the story goes that when she performed in Manchester during a tour of England with Muddy Waters in 1964, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jeff Beck watched her play.

When you hear rock and roll and you hear the distorted crunchy guitar sound that’s so often associated with it, you’re hearing part of the legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.