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


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.


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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One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

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The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
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Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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