Celebration

Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Forgotten Mother of Rock-and-Roll

Chuck Berry borrowed her guitar stylings. Little Richard said she was responsible for his career. Elvis was influenced by her. Who was the real Sister Rosetta Tharpe?

09.11.16 4:01 AM ET

Sister Rosetta Tharpe may be the most famous rock-and-roll star you’ve never heard of.

If you don’t know the name, try to picture an African-American woman in a long white sequined dress and high heels, touring America in the 1930s and 40s with an electric guitar slung around her neck. She got her start in gospel but began crossing over to nightclubs and introducing the rhythms that became rock-and-roll (as Stereo Williams wrote in a Daily Beast profile of her).

“I love music, but I’d never come across her before, and when I finally did, I thought ‘who is this woman, and why don’t I know about her?’” said playwright George Brant.

He ultimately learned everything he could about Rosetta’s life and music and was stunned by her outsized impact. Now his terrific new musical Marie and Rosetta, is having its world premiere at the small Atlantic Theater in Manhattan.

Chuck Berry borrowed her guitar stylings and Little Richard said she was responsible for his career. Elvis Presley counted her as an influence and even Jimi Hendrix once said he just wanted to play like Rosetta. Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash have all cited her as influences—which makes it even more frustrating that she fell out of fashion,” said Brant.

The play takes place in Mississippi on the night that the strong and confident Sister Rosetta connects for the first time with the younger singer Marie Knight. Over 90 engrossing and song-filled minutes, they struggle with who they are as black women, trying to sing for both the Lord and white audiences.

The setting for the play is a funeral parlor, and the stage is filled with caskets and a single piano.

As they get to know each other and try decide if they can work together, Rosetta teaches the more naïve Marie what she’ll face on the road. First lesson is that however famous Rosetta was as a recording star in those days, “to the rest of Mississippi, I’m just another [n-word].” She’s not allowed into hotels, so they’ll spend the night just where they are.

“Down here we depend on the Good Samaritan Circuit for a bed cuz God knows there ain’t no room at the inn,” Rosetta explains.

Marie says she won’t sleep at all because she’ll be looking for ghosts, but Rosetta is delighted to have some space and notes that a casket offers a soft place to lie down.

“Like sleeping on a cloud,” she says triumphantly.

She also explains that she has a white bus driver to buy food since they can’t go into a restaurant down South. They’ll eat gospel chicken or whatever the driver can rustle up.

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“Gospel chicken?” Marie asks.

“Bologna. Restaurants won’t give black folk nothin’ hot,” Rosetta says.

With its mix of matter-of-fact conversation and exultant music, the play feels like a secret passage into Rosetta's world. It’s as good as anything that has been on stage in recent years in capturing both the joy and pain of being an African-American woman.

So it’s all the more surprising to discover that playwright Brant is a white guy from Cleveland.

“I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to tell the story,” said Brant, who is married and in his mid-40s. “I started and stopped this play a lot of times. But Rosetta and Marie were two women I fell in love with. Their story needed to be told and nobody else was telling it.”

Kecia Lewis, who plays Sister Rosetta with searing vibrancy and passion, says she’s glad that Brant struggled with whether he had the right to tell the story of two African-American women. And she’s even happier that he went ahead and did it.

“I’d defend him to anyone, because of course he should be the one to write the story,” she said. “It’s his heart on the stage. We all want to be heard and understood and his way of expressing that is just beautiful. He even gets the vernacular and Southern way of speaking that comes naturally to me.”

Watching old recordings of Sister Rosetta on YouTube, you quickly realize that Lewis doesn’t just sound like the forgotten star—she fully embodies her soul and style. Lewis sings with the same power and jubilation that Sister Rosetta did, and though many decades separated them, Lewis says that she and Rosetta have similar personalities.

“Her stubbornness—I share that trait. And her unwillingness to be told how to do her business. If you don’t seize the day and have the courage to go toward your passion, you’re lost,” Lewis said.

How Sister Rosetta found the courage in those darker days is hard to imagine. Conservative church-goers turned on her and questioned her faith when she began playing her rock spirituals at places like the Cotton Club in Harlem. It had to be painful when fellow-gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who didn’t start out nearly as successful, became more popular by sticking to her religious roots.

“I’m gonna find more sinners in a nightclub than she ever gonna find in a church,” Rosetta parries in the play.

Still, she clearly struggled with the fact that “those gospel gates got locked behind me when I went out into the nightclubs” and she hopes that joining with Marie’s more high-church sound will swing them back open.

“Rosetta was the trouble maker, poking at the gospel tradition,” said Brant. “Mahalia’s star rose while hers began to fall. It’s as if it wasn’t possible for the two of them to both be successful.”

Lewis understands the conflict that Rosetta faced as a gospel singer with an independent streak who ultimately divorced her preacher husband and got married three times. “I also grew up in the church and had my challenges with the church way of doing things. I’m a human being and it’s not an easy road so I struggle with the same kind of rebellions.”

Director Neil Pepe admires that the show isn’t a standard jukebox musical, trying to tell the full story of a star’s life through her music. Instead, it takes place in one revealing night. (The night has a poignant and surprising twist at the end that I won’t reveal.) That these women who had once been so famous would be unknown to most modern audiences also intrigued him.

“It’s not for nothing that they’re two extraordinary heroes of 20th century music who also happen to be unsung black women,” Pepe said. “So many artists are unsung because they are women or minorities.”

He realized that finding stars would could sing, act, and play the piano and guitar would be difficult—“so we decided to go for two out of three.” Lewis and co-star Rebecca Naomi Jones as Marie get back up from two musicians behind a scrim onstage. Deah Harriott plays the gospel-jazz-R&B piano, and Felicia Collins, who was on television every night for 23 years as the guitarist in the David Letterman show’s orchestra, is Sister Rosetta on guitar.

The actors and musicians have bonded and Lewis says they have riotous conversations before each show. “And then we pray together that the four of us will go out and honor and celebrate these women.”

Both Pepe and Brant are awed by the toughness and fortitude of Sister Rosetta and how she forever changed music.

“A lot of people say that her ‘Strange Things Happen Every Day’ was the first rock-and-roll song,” said Brant. “A decade or two before Ray Charles, she was making gospel into popular music. She deserves more credit.”

When she died in 1973, Sister Rosetta was buried in Philadelphia in an unmarked grave. Only in the last few years was money finally raised for a headstone.

“How could that possibly happen?” asked Brant. “Maybe it’s an American thing that stars are so important and then people forget and move on to something else.”

His wonderful, touching, and empowering play should keep us from forgetting Sister Rosetta for at least a little while more.

Marie and Rosetta runs until October 2 at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, New York. Details here.