Her Gospel Truth
Sister Rosetta Tharpe invented rock ’n’ roll, but it wasn’t enough for Richmond — her chosen home for a decade — to remember her
Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing at the London Palladium in 1964 (Photo courtesy Pictoral Press Ltd/Alamy Stock)
There’s a two-lane stretch of highway between the Arkansas towns of Cotton Plant and Brinkley that was renamed last year. It’s now the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Highway, in honor of the woman who created rock ‘n’ roll.
Yes, a woman.
And yes, she played an electric guitar.
With a badass manner that defied tradition and expectation, she shouted about the Lord and her lovers — male and female — with a voice full of grit and gall that captivated crowds. Years later, guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards and Chuck Berry would mimic her movements and playing style, putting the finishing touches on the genre she shaped.
“Can’t no man play like me,” she’d say whenever she was compared with her male peers. “I play better than a man.”
Her strutting confidence shone through in her performances, as she commanded the stage with a charisma that easily enamored audiences.
Beginning in the 1920s and for decades to follow, she came, she saw, she rocked. And then people forgot. Until recently.
The Postal Service issued a stamp with her face on it. In the state where she died, Pennsylvanians declared a day in her honor. This month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland will finally induct her as an “Early Influencer.”
Then there’s Richmond.
It’s where she lived at the height of her popularity, where she purchased her first home, found her music director and assembled her backing vocalists, The Rosettes. She loved the city so much she held a concert at the then-Mosque (today’s Altria Theater) in 1949 just to celebrate the anniversary of her residency.
But if you visit her home in the 2300 block of Barton Avenue today, you won’t see a historical marker. Nor at the Altria Theater. Or anywhere else. We haven’t had a Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day. Despite Tharpe living here for 10 years and becoming a valued member of the community, Richmond has forgotten the mother of rock ‘n’ roll.
Sister Rosetta with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra around 1943 (Photo courtesy Pictoral Press Ltd/Alamy Stock)
The question of how a city lost track of one of its most famous residents is an important one. But Tharpe’s contributions to American music aren’t questionable. That discussion was settled long ago.
“She was playing rock ‘n’ roll way before anyone else,” says Lonnie Liston Smith Jr., a jazz, soul and funk musician who played with Miles Davis and Pharoah Sanders and still makes his home in Richmond. “That was way before Chuck Berry and all those guys. Nobody else had even come up with something like that.”
Smith should know. His father, the late Lonnie Smith Sr., was a member of The Harmonizing Four, a popular gospel quartet that often shared billing with Tharpe.
“If anybody deserves it, she really deserves it,” he says, after being told of Tharpe’s induction into the Rock Hall. “What they call rock ‘n’ roll, she was playing it way back then. Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, she influenced all of them.”
Tharpe was already a star when she settled in Richmond in 1947. She was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915. By the time she was 6, she was singing at revivals and churches with her mother. They later moved to Chicago, where she would combine her country style with the smoother sounds of the city. One of the most prominent gospel music voices of that time was that of the Rev. F.W. McGee (grandfather of Richmond jazz musician and educator Bill McGee), whom music historians credit as an influence on her.
Tharpe’s 1938 release “Rock Me” introduced her unique meld of blues and gospel to the world. (Photo courtesy Dr. Gregg D. Kimball)
Soon Tharpe was touring the South, playing with the likes of Duke Ellington and touring with the gospel outfit The Dixie Hummingbirds. Her first single, recorded for the Decca label, was called “Rock Me.” It’s a gospel song, but Tharpe’s passionate and yearning vocal made listeners ponder what she was really shouting about:
You make my burning brighter
Help me to do good wherever I can
Oh, let thou praise and thrill me
Thou loving kindness fill me
Then you hold me
Hold me in the hollow of the hand
You hold me in the bosom
Till storms of life is over
Rock me in the cradle of our love
After her career took off, Tharpe dabbled in secular music (“I Want a Tall Skinny Papa,” recorded with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra), but she considered herself foremost a gospel artist. One of her signature songs, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” became one of the first gospel songs to cross over, landing on Billboard’s “race music” chart, a now-notorious catchall category in which all black music was grouped through the late ’50s.
Tharpe, a striking woman who performed in evening gowns with an electric guitar, cannot be categorized easily. She sang with the cadence of a blues artist but looked like the gospel queen she was, with a crowning permanent wave and flowing dresses. Second only to her guitar, her face was her most expressive instrument, punctuating her licks and strokes with winks, raised eyebrows and a smile that set everything straight.
By the 1940s, thanks to a contract with Decca Records — then home of Bing Crosby and the London Philharmonic, later of The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney — she cemented herself as a bona fide solo act, with the freedoms that status entails. She sought the same freedoms in her personal life, too, divorcing a second husband and, before that marriage ended, entering a partnership with another singer, Marie Knight, with whom she would perform — and live — for many years.
To this day, the subject of their relationship is a difficult one for many of Tharpe’s friends and associates, though some, in a recent book, confirm that the singer was bisexual and in a relationship with Knight.
By stark contrast, the LGBTQ community has adopted Tharpe as an icon, a boundary-smashing figure in her personal as well as professional life and a forerunner of those artists who consciously blurred aesthetic and social lines over the past 50 years.
When Sister Rosetta Tharpe moved to Barton Heights, with her mother and musical partner Marie Knight in tow, it was a very big deal.
Not just for Richmond, which was playing host to a gospel legend, but for Tharpe as well. It was more than finding a home base that made it easy for her to tour the East Coast; the home she moved into was the first she had ever owned.
In “Shout Sister Shout! The Untold Story of Rock and Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” author Gayle F. Wald observes that, having rented in New York, Tharpe “was proud to bursting at having purchased in the ‘Heights,’ a name that itself announced status.”
She wasn’t the only one who was proud. Barksdale “Barky” Haggins, the owner of Barky’s Spiritual Stores record shop on Broad Street, was a teenager at the time, more concerned with his newspaper delivery routes — but he insists he was well aware of Tharpe. “When she bought that house on Barton Avenue, that was an all-white section then, wasn’t any blacks goin’ into Barton,” he says.
Tharpe’s former home in the 2300 block of Barton Avenue had a three-car garage and a rose garden. (Photo by Adam Dubrueler)
Wald describes the home, which still stands, as “swanky.” Visitors recall lush carpets, mirrored walls and ceilings, a three-car garage, a horse named Margaret, and a rose garden. Today, at the back of the property, there’s a large concrete slab, perhaps all that remains of the building that once held all of Tharpe and Knight’s many evening gowns and furs.
Musician and producer Stu Gardner, whose father, William Gardner Jr., was a member of The Dependable Boys, a group that recorded with Tharpe, recalls those days with fondness: “My dad took us over to the house — he used to work with her,” he says. “He was crazy about her. She was a wonderful sweet lady. Loved to laugh. She had an infectious laugh. Her laughing could kill you. When she [would] start laughing, you go ‘n’ laugh.”
Gardner, who was around 5 years old when he met Tharpe, says she was like part of his family. “My father had three sisters, and she was like the fourth sister,” he says. “My father worked at McSweeney’s [butcher shop]. They used to lay him off and on, and she used to financially help him a lot. She used to buy everybody clothes. She was like our godmother.”
Gardner’s story isn’t an aberration.
By all accounts, Tharpe was a cheerful giver, known for sharing her wealth — by one estimate, she made about $200,000 in one year — with those less fortunate. In her heyday, that giving nature made her beloved in the city.
“The city was important to her because of the vibrant gospel scenes it nurtured,” Wald says. “Richmond was a place where there were a lot of vocal harmony groups, both male and female, and that set it apart from some other cities that didn’t have that kind of grass-roots singing culture.”
Lonnie Smith Sr. (far left) in Richmond’s The Harmonizing Four with Joe Williams, Jesse Pryor, Ellis Johnson and Thomas Johnson (Photo courtesy Dr. Gregg D. Kimball)
In the late 1940s, Richmond was home to memorable groups like The Harmonizing Four, The Dependable Boys, The Jewel Gospel Singers, Maggie Ingram and others. Tharpe, exercising her growing power in the music business, acquired one popular local group and changed its name twice as she groomed the singers as her own backups. Eventually, she christened them The Rosettes.
Tharpe’s music lives on, albeit in brief, sometimes scratchy black-and-white YouTube clips, and through the re-release of her records. But most of her friends and associates from her Richmond years aren’t around anymore. Her bandleader, Jimmy Roots, died in 1986. The Rosettes have all passed away. Members of The Harmonizing Four and The Dependable Boys are gone as well.
Fortunately, there are stories that, like the songs, have endured.
“If it wasn’t for Rosetta Tharpe, then I wouldn’t be here. Because that’s how my mom and dad met,” says Richmond jazz singer Desirée Roots. “I always thanked her for being born.”
The Rosettes included (left to right) Lottie Henry (Smith), Shug Fitzgerald, Sarah Brooks (Roots), Barbara Johnson and Bubba Johnson. (Photo courtesy Getty/Michael Ochs Archives)
Her father, Jimmy Roots, was Rosetta’s pianist and bandleader. Her mother, then Sarah Brooks, was one of The Rosettes, Tharpe’s backup singers. Roots was a smooth, fair-skinned piano player with red hair, freckles and a gold dental crown that sparkled under the stage lights when he smiled, as women in the audience screamed and swooned.
Sarah Brooks, a Rosette, wasn’t one of those women — at least, not initially.
“She was like, ‘Ugh! I can’t stand him,’ Desirée recalls her mother saying. “Then the next thing you know, they’re married.”
Family duties eventually called Sarah, and then eventually Jimmy, too, from the road. Her father kept playing music locally, and Desirée has continued the family legacy, touring regionally and performing jazz and R&B standards.
When it was announced that Tharpe would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Roots was elated, both for Tharpe and for her parents.
“Knowing that my mom and dad were a part of that history,” she says, “I feel like it’s part of my family.”
Tharpe’s Richmond home would never be the same after a tragic accident that occurred hundreds of miles away from Barton Heights.
While Tharpe was on tour in 1949, her partner Marie Knight’s two children died in a fire at the house of Knight’s mother in New Jersey. The tragedy effectively ended her professional relationship with Tharpe.
There would be a reunion, however, when Tharpe decided to wed for the third and final time in 1951, marking the occasion with an over-the-top event, planned by two veteran gospel promoters long before there was ever a groom in mind. Tharpe went along with it.
The wedding was held at Griffith Stadium, home to the American League Washington Senators in Washington, D.C., but it had also had a distinctive Richmond touch: Tharpe’s $800 wedding gown was from Thahilmer’s. African-American customers were not especially welcome at the department store, which had segregated facilities. But the management learned to make an exception for Tharpe after an embarrassing incident. As Wald recounts it, Tharpe was hauled off to the police station after attempting to make an exceptionally large purchase, all in cash. The store apologized after realizing the error and ended up giving Tharpe the merchandise she’d tried to purchase. For the wedding, perhaps to further atone for the incident, Tharpe’s wedding dress and a bridal consultant from the store were driven to the ceremony, where the bride was buttoned into her gown.
More than 15,000 people attended the wedding, according to press accounts.
The attraction was the concert that followed, which was recorded and released as “The Wedding Ceremony of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Russell Morrison,” featuring the couple’s wedding vows along with performances from The Harmonizing Four and, of course, the bride herself. Fireworks capped off the event, reported the Richmond Afro-American — including one that was a replica of Tharpe with her guitar.
The concert turned out to be one of Tharpe’s last major musical accomplishments. Another gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, began to eclipse her in popularity on the gospel scene. Decca attempted to market her as an R&B singer, but it didn’t work. And gospel fans were slow to welcome her back after her attempts at secular music.
At a crossroads, she found adoring audiences again overseas, on a British tour that connected her with people eager to hear genuine African-American music, after having heard their countrymen imitate it for years.
As Tharpe clung to relevance abroad, her cavalier attitude about her finances became a liability that would have severe consequences.
“Richmond was a place where there were a lot of vocal harmony groups ... and that set it apart from some other cities that didn’t have that kind of grass-roots singing culture.” —Gayle Wald, author of “Shout Sister Shout! The Untold Story of Rock and Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe”
Tharpe’s time in Richmond ended abruptly, and in a way that has only helped to diminish her legacy.
In 1957, while on tour out of the country, her home and all of her belongings were seized and auctioned. Lonnie Smith Sr. told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1981 that the foreclosure of her home had been related to unpaid taxes.
It was a sad end to her relationship with the city that for so long had served as a home base. She would never again return to Richmond and never again enjoy the same musical success.
A brilliant star, she ended up, like so many blues greats, obscure, out of style and forgotten.
Stu Gardner, then signed to the record label Stax, recalls the company wanting to sign her in the early 1970s, but they couldn’t locate her.
By this time, Tharpe had developed diabetes. As the disease ravaged her body, the once-statuesque woman was confined to a wheelchair after a leg was amputated.
Still, she played on — a fact that made some of her friends and relatives deeply uneasy. They claimed her husband was behind her difficult touring schedule, determined to exploit her name and earning power.
In the end, she was frail and exhausted, a fraction of the woman she had been, the great and galvanizing force who had changed music.
She died in 1973, her body buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was too good to stay forgotten.
In 2007, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. Two years later, funds raised from a concert featuring gospel legends, including Marie Knight, were used to purchase a grave marker for Tharpe in Philadelphia.
In 2012, she was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame and the following year she joined the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame. A historical marker was placed at her former Philadelphia home at 1102 Master St. in 2011. It reads in part, “One of gospel music’s first crossover superstars … Her home was here.”
In Richmond, however, her former house remains unmarked. There are no memorials in this city of memorials, no acknowledgment that she called this city her home.
For a place that struggles with how to properly recall the pain and triumphs of the past, this should be an easy one. Give a Sister her due.