Easter Sunday Gospel Hour: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

by James Burkinshaw

In April 1964, someone at ITV’s Granada Television (the producers of Coronation Street) had the inspired (if mildly deranged) idea of filming some of America’s greatest gospel singers before a live audience on the platform of a disused railway station on the outskirts of Manchester.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe had been performing professionally for half a century (from the prodigious age of four) when the film was made. She arrives on the stage in a horse and trap, before launching straight into a memorable performance of the gospel classic “Didn’t It Rain?” (the song choice presumably an ironic reference to the inhospitable Mancunian weather).

Her rendition includes a transcendent guitar solo, bending the notes in a way more typical of a rock guitarist than a gospel performer. Indeed her blistering, virtuosic guitar style led to Sister Rosetta being dubbed “the godmother of rock and roll”, her 1944 hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day” (see below) cited as “the first rock and roll record”. 

Many gospel purists objected to the way in which Sister Rosetta mixed sacred lyrics with a secular (blues- and jazz-influenced) musical style; she was a “cross-over artist” long before such a term existed. So great was her popularity with wider audiences that she was one of very few gospel singers to perform at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem and one of only two gospel artists to be recorded on disc for American GIs to listen to overseas during the Second World War. She has been claimed as an influence by musicians as diverse (and unexpected) as Led Zeppelin, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Shocked and Elvis.

More performances by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, below:

See also Easter Sunday Gospel Hour: The Staple Singers and a tribute to bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, who died on March 28, 2012.