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The Gospel Singer Who Became the Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll

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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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40 Years Later: Watch The Johnny Cash Christmas Show
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash made a series of Christmas TV specials and recorded a string of Christmas records. In this 1977 TV performance, Cash is in great form. He brings special guests Roy Clark, June Carter Cash, The Carter Family, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison ("Pretty Woman" starts around 23:50), Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers. Tune in for Christmas as we celebrated it 40 years ago—with gigantic shirt collars, wavy hair, and bow ties. So many bow ties.

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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
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Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


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First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


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In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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