Throughout the 885 Greatest Songs By Women (As Chosen By You!) countdown, we’ll take you on deeper dives into select songs that pop up each day.
A bold, talented woman often referred to as the “Godmother of Rock and Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe spread the joys of rhythm and blues into the Gospel community. And vice-versa; she also served as an inspiration to many of the rock and roll figures we often look up to today, and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Tharpe’s iconic song “Didn’t It Rain” is just one example of her expansive discography that showcases her wonderful vocal abilities along with her formidable guitar skills. She riffs on her electric guitar with ease and uses her big voice to tell the Biblical story of Noah and the flood. Her lyrics paired with her innovative playing helped influence many members of the church to be more open-minded about secular music. Tharpe had a deep passion for the church and brought her bright spirit to every performance, including performing Gospel music for people of all denominations.
Tharpe began playing guitar around age four, was performing with her mother at age six, and by the time she was a teenager, she was regarded as a musical prodigy. Tharpe popularized the “SG” Les Paul Guitar in her later years, toying with distortion and tones that had never been heard before, paving the way for a whole new genre and influencing icons like Jimi Hendrix to play the same model guitar.
Her most famous performance of “Didn’t It Rain” took place in 1964 in Manchester, England under the Chorlton Railway Station overhang. Filmed for Granada TV’s Blues and Gospel Train program, this performance presented an elegantly dressed Tharpe unwaveringly confident in front of a mostly white audience, during a time when racial tensions were extremely high. This performance “influenced nearly everyone who saw it,” according to The University of Salford’s Dr. Chris Lee, and the BBC called it a performance as important as the Sex Pistols’ 1976 show at the city’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe will forever be regarded as a trailblazer. Her talents shone a beacon of light onto the Black community, motivating many to unleash their talents in the same way that she did. And though she was relatively private about her sexuality during her life, she was known to have relationships with both women and men, and today is celebrated as a queer icon. Her creativity and innovations are still inspiring people today, and her influence can be heard in many artists, from Bob Dylan to Brittany Howard.