Arkansas-Native Sister Rosetta Tharpe Among 2018 Rock Hall Of Fame Inductees

Dec 13, 2017

A publicity photo for Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1938.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a pioneering gospel singer and guitar player from Arkansas, will be among the 2018 inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was born in the Woodruff County town of Cotton Plant in 1915 and achieved fame in the 1930s.  Tharpe was among six acts announced Wednesday for next year's induction ceremony and will be honored in the category Early Influences. 

Stephen Koch, host of the weekly feature Arkansongs, says given her influence, it’s an honor long overdue. He spoke with KUAR during All Things Considered.

STEPHEN KOCH: I think Arkansawyers should be proud and excited. This has been almost 50 years in the making, and she is a unique talent that somehow rose to the top on the strength of her sheer guitar and musical ability and the power of her personality. She is a strong, strong person.

MICHAEL HIBBLEN: A black woman playing electric guitar doing gospel (who) really came into her own in the 1930s…

KOCH: Yeah, even when you say it like that it really shows what a unique talent she was. She was doing guitar work like Jimmy Page and Jimmy Hendrix 10, 20 years or more before all that, and then to do it in a gospel context, and then to be a black woman, it really shows how… whatever she had faced, imagine what she could have done in today’s world, but we know that she must have faced so much oppression just within the church – just within the church – don’t even get into the gender and racial dynamics; she was someone that really faced a lot of criticism.

HIBBLEN: And credited too with helping to break the color line, performing with white musicians and bands.

KOCH: Yes, and she broke down so many barriers. It’s amazing that they just now caught on at the Rock Hall to what she has done. And there’s been so many people that have been screaming this for a long time.

HIBBLEN: Tell me about the influence she had on the early pioneers of rock and roll: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash.

KOCH: Yeah, well all those guys that you just mentioned strongly advocated for her. There’s a really great video of when Johnny Cash got inducted, he mentions Rosetta Tharpe as the person that inspired him listening to the radio. But as far as your question, you can hear, if you go back and listen to some Rosetta Tharpe, even from the late ‘50s, but she started recording in 1938, and her style was pretty fully formed then, and she is wailing on an electric guitar in the manner that we only saw that regularly a generation later. The style that she’s using – a lot of trills and feedback, and she’s playing a Gibson SG such as employed by Angus Young and all the guitar heroes of the ‘70s and the ‘60s and beyond. She was doing all this outrageous rock and roll stuff before they even had rock and roll.

HIBBLEN: Where did that sound come from? Do we know?

KOCH: Well, she was very young and started as a singer in the church like at age two, three – an outstandingly young age – and then she started playing guitar. So this was her own unique style; that it was forged from years and years of practice. Her mother was an Arkansawyer that took her on tour in the Pentecostal church and eventually – and this is what caused a lot of a rift in the church – she did secular music and did songs like “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” and “Rock Me” that had salacious undertones. She could have just recorded any secular song and that would have been a scandal, but then she recorded these kind of suggestive sexual songs that seemed to go much more with her guitar style.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a ceremony April 14 in Cleveland. Other 2018 inductees are The Cars, Nina Simone, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues and Bon Jovi.

Arkansongs host Stephen Koch (with hat) alongside Cotton Plant Historical Museum Director Angela Ryland, Cotton Plant Mayor Willard C. Ryland and other officials on Sept. 29 at the unveiling of a sign dedicating part of Arkansas highway 17 in honor of Sister Rosetta Tharpe eight miles southeast of Cotton Plant.
Credit Stephanie Smittle