Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an Arkansas-native who influenced musicians later credited with creating rock and roll, is one of six acts being inducted this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Born in the Woodruff County town of Cotton Plant in 1915, Tharpe is being posthumously inducted during a ceremony Saturday night in Cleveland.
Tharpe rose to fame in the 1930s, breaking boundaries by being an African-American woman who sang while playing an electric guitar with heavy distortion. Her style would later be adopted by blues performers and iconic rock guitarists.
Greg Harris, chief executive officer of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, spoke about Tharpe’s influence last month during an event at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.
"She was making music in the late ‘30s that sounded an awful lot like rock and roll, singing gospel with an electric guitar and just cranking. She’s considered the godmother of rock and roll," Harris said. "When people say the Beatles were influenced by the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry and others, Chuck Berry was influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe."
Other musicians, including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Little Richard, also cited Tharpe as having an impact on their development. Music historians in Arkansas consider this is a long overdue honor.
"This is a great recognition of an Arkansas native and just an unsung hero, and this has been a long time coming, so this is a big deal," said John Miller with the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, which is part of the Central Arkansas Library System. "She started out as a big band singer and then moved into her gospel stuff, and when she did that, she stepped away from the horns and the bigger band, and she basically came up with the prototypical rock instrumental format of a piano, bass, keyboards and guitar. And the fact that she was fronting this band, playing the guitar, writing a good portion of these songs, that’s amazing," Miller said.
Tharpe was a musical prodigy who began performing at the age of four, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. She became a gospel music superstar who performed around the world. But she was also shunned by some for performing in nightclubs.
"She’s a common influence among all of these people who are given credit for inventing rock and roll," Miller said. "Unfortunately there’s precious little about her, and precious little recognition for her, and that’s why this is such a monumental thing. She should have been inducted in the first class."
Tharpe was listed as a nominee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last October. On Decmber 13, it was announced she had been elected as an early pioneer. Other acts being inducted this year are the Cars, Nina Simone, Dire Straits, the Moody Blues and Bon Jovi.
Tharpe died of a stroke in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Oct. 9, 1973.