Meet Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the black woman who invented that rock and roll sound

tags: rock and roll, Video of the Week, Rosetta Tharpe

Alexis Madrigal is Fusion's Silicon Valley Bureau Chief. He was a senior editor at The Atlantic and a staff writer at Wired. He's the author of "Powering the Dream" and a visiting scholar at Berkeley.

Rosetta Tharpe was born 100 years ago today—March 20, 1915, twenty years before Elvis, a decade before Chuck Berry. And she could play the rock and roll guitar better than anyone, before anyone.

Now, rock and roll has a lot of parents. Any movement so big in popular music isn’t just invented by one person. But if anybody can claim the title of Mother of Rock and Roll, it would be Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Coming out of the gospel world, she was willing to cross over into playing for secular audiences, and more importantly, she just knew how to wield the axe in a way that is uncannily modern.

“She had a major impact on artists like Elvis Presley,” her biographer Gayle Wald told a documentary film crew. “When you see Elvis Presley singing songs early in his career, I think you [should] imagine, he is channeling Rosetta Tharpe. It’s not an image that I think we’re used to thinking of in rock and roll history. We don’t think about the black woman behind the young white man.”

But we should! Not just because it is historical truth, but because Rosetta Tharpe is an amazing, amazing musician who was so far ahead of her time (and something of a superstar in her time, too).

“She did incredible picking. That’s what attracted Elvis to her,” Gordon Stoker, who led Elvis’ backing band, told the documentary crew. “He liked her singing, too. But he liked her picking first, because it was so different.”

Her 1944 hit “Down by the Riverside” features a solo section where she just shreds the guitar. Like, the kind of shredding Michael J. Fox’s character tries to pull off in Back to the Future. And this was before the end of World War II!

Just watch her go here, at the beginning of the documentary about her life. She was a rock star before there were rock stars. ...

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