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."

Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images
The 'David Bowie Is' Exhibition Is Coming to Your Smartphone
 Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images
Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images

"David Bowie is," an exhibition dedicated to the life, work, and legacy of the pop icon, concluded its six-year world tour on July 15. If you didn't get a chance to see it in person at its final stop at New York City's Brooklyn Museum, you can still experience the exhibit at home. As engadget reports, the artifacts displayed in the collection will be recreated in virtual and augmented reality.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, the curator of the exhibit, and the David Bowie Archive are collaborating with Sony Music Entertainment and the sound and media studio Planeta on the new project, "David Bowie is Virtual." Like the physical exhibition, the digital experience will integrate visual scenes with the music of David Bowie: 3D scans will bring the musician's costumes and personal items into the virtual sphere, allowing viewers to examine them up close, and possibly in the case of the outfits, try them on.

"These new digital versions of ‘David Bowie is’ will add unprecedented depth and intimacy to the exhibition experience, allowing the viewer to engage with the work of one of the world’s most popular and influential artists as never before," the announcement of the project reads. "Both the visual richness of this show and the visionary nature of Bowie and his art makes this a particularly ideal candidate for a VR/AR adaptation."

"David Bowie is Virtual" will be released for smartphones and all major VR and AR platforms sometimes this fall. Like the museum exhibition, it will come with an admission price, with a portion of the proceeds going toward the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.

[h/t engadget]

Why Do Orchestras Tune to an A Note?

When orchestra members tune their instruments before a performance, it almost always sounds the same. That’s because across the world, most orchestras tune to the same A note, using a standard pitch of 440 hertz.

This is the result of international standards that have been in place since the 19th century, according to WQXR, a classical music radio station in New York City. Currently, standard tuning frequency is set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an international group that makes recommendations on everything from what safety labels should look like to how big the hole in a pen cap should be. A standard called ISO 16, first recommended in 1955 and confirmed in 1975, “specifies the frequency for the note A in the treble stave and shall be 440 hertz.”

The ISO didn’t pull that frequency out of thin air. During the Industrial Revolution, a rush toward standardization and universality led to multiple international meetings that aimed to bring orchestras all over the world to the same pitch. Standardizing pitch had important ramifications for the international music scene.

Historically, the pitch that orchestras tuned to could differ wildly depending on where the musicians were playing. “In the course of the last 400 years in Europe, the point that has been considered ideal for a reference pitch has fluctuated by some 5 or 6 semitones,” musicologist Bruce Haynes explained in his book, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of ‘A.’ In the 17th century, a French performer might tune his or her instrument a whole tone lower than their German colleagues. The standards could even change from one town to the next, affecting how music written in one location might sound when played in another.

As a writer for London's The Spectator observed in 1859, “It is well known that when we are performing Handel's music (for example) from the very notes in which he wrote it, we are really performing it nearly a whole tone higher than he intended;—the sound associated in his ear with the note A, being nearly the same sound which, in our ear, is associated with the note G.”

In the 19th century, a commission established by the French government tried to analyze pitch across Europe by looking at the frequencies of the tuning forks musicians used as their reference while tuning their instruments. The commission gathered tuning forks from different cities, finding that most were pitched somewhere around 445 hertz. Over the years, due to bigger concert halls and more advanced instruments, pitch was rising across most orchestras, and instruments and voices were being strained as a result. So the commission recommended lowering the standard to what was known as “the compromise pitch.”

In 1859, the French commission legally established diapason normal, the standard pitch for the A above middle C, at 435 hertz. (The music world would still be debating whether or not pitch had risen too much more than a century later.) Later, 435 hertz became enshrined as a standard elsewhere, too. In 1885, government representatives from Italy, Austria, Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Württemberg met to establish their own international standard, agreeing on 435 hertz. The agreement was eventually written into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

But not everyone was on board with 435 hertz. The Royal Philharmonic Society in London believed the French pitch standard was pegged to a specific temperature—59°F—and decided to adjust their pitch upward to compensate for their concert halls being warmer than that, settling on 439 hertz. Meanwhile, in 1917, the American Federation of Musicians declared 440 hertz to be the standard pitch in the U.S.

In 1939, the International Standardizing Organization met in London to agree on a standard for concert pitch to be used across the world. A Dutch study of European pitch that year had found that while pitch varied across orchestras and countries, the average of those varied pitches was around 440 hertz. So it made sense for the ISO to choose A 440. Furthermore, radio broadcasters and technicians like the BBC preferred A 440 to the English A 439 because 439 was a prime number and thus harder to reproduce in a laboratory.

World War II delayed the official launch of the 1939 ISO agreement, but the organization issued its A 440 decision in 1955, then again two decades later. A 440 was here to stay. That said, even now, pitch does vary a little depending on the musicians in question. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra notably tunes to 443 hertz rather than the standard 440 hertz, for instance. While A 440 may be the official “concert pitch” across the world, in practice, there is still a little wiggle room.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at


More from mental floss studios