It should be common knowledge that Black women invented rock and roll. Memphis Minnie, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Bessie Smith and Sister Rosetta Tharpe should be names known as widely as those of the men who came after them, especially the white boys who have been canonized and made infinitely wealthy for biting their style.
Instead, even as they’re cited in the annals of musicology and name-checked by music nerds, these Black women innovators are still far less famous than the musicians they influenced, and rock and roll writ large is almost always raced and gendered as white and male. But it’s Black women who laid the foundation of a musical powerhouse that racism and sexism vaingloriously settler-colonized.
Their talents are captured on “race records,” where Black music was relegated before it was columbused and repackaged for white consumption. Sister Rosetta Tharpe—a queer Black woman from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, who performed to Pentecostal church crowds by age 4, and was billed as the “Singing and Guitar Playing Miracle” by age 6—reworked gospel hymns into secular hits before “crossover” was even a thing.
In 1938, after performing at New York City’s Apollo Theater and becoming a featured regular at the Cotton Club Revue, Tharpe recorded “Rock Me,” a revised take on the holy spiritual “Hide Me In Thy Bosom.” “Won’t you hear me swingin’,” the opening line on Tharpe’s version, was a sonically small but lyrically meaningful tweak from the original’s “singing,” and Tharpe growled the word “rock” on the chorus—turning it into a song that hinted at pleasures of the flesh.
But it’s Tharpe’s guitar playing, more subdued and acoustic on her early tracks, electrified and pushed to the forefront by the time of her recordings in the late 1940s, in addition to her tremendous vocals, that mark her as a truly extraordinary musical vanguard and visionary. Dressed in heels, “sequined gowns and a series of dye jobs or wigs of different colors—sometimes she was a blonde, sometimes a redhead,” Tharpe would belt out jumped-up versions of gospel songs and play out guitar solos that seem to channel the divine.
Watching Tharpe riff, run and bend notes—and you really should literally watch—is to witness what is unquestionably rock and roll’s first blistering incarnation.
Tharpe would use the Jordanaires, an all-white outfit that had been mainstays at the Grand Ole Opry, as her backing band. The group would later go on to play with Elvis Presley, who member Gordon Stoker said revered Tharpe’s “pickin’. He liked her singing, but he liked that pickin’ first—because it was so different.”
Chuck Berry reportedly once said that his entire career was “one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation,” and Johnny Cash cited her as his favorite singer of all time. “Say man, there’s a woman who can sing some rock and roll,” Jerry Lee Lewis told music critic Peter Guralnick in an interview. “I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock and roll. She jumps it. She’s hitting that guitar, playing that guitar, and she is singing. I said, ‘Whoooo. Sister Rosetta Tharpe.’”
And Bob Dylan called Tharpe “a powerful force of nature, a guitar-playing singer and evangelist,” noting that there were “a lot of young English guys who picked up the guitar after getting a look at her.”
In 1957, Tharpe reportedly told the Daily Mail, “All this new stuff they call rock and roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now.” And nothing could’ve been more true. Yet somehow, the Black woman who was making rock and roll decades before white dudes who studied and lifted her swag, was described in a 1970 review as “so rhythmically exciting that when she accompanies herself on guitar she might be a blacked-up Elvis in drag.”
Tharpe died in 1973, and her gravestone remained unmarked until 2008. If toxic white supremacist misogynoir were capable of being shamed, the fact that Tharpe’s name was nearly whitewashed from rock history until decades after her death—she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 2018, years after many of those she inspired—would be one reason among many.
It might follow the near-erasure of Memphis Minnie, the “Queen of the Blues” who with Kansas Joe McCoy recorded the original 1929 recording of “When the Levee Breaks”—one of the few songs well-established plagiarists Led Zeppelin bothered to cite as the original singer on their modified cover version.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton got paid a measly $500 for her multi-million-selling 1953 hit “Hound Dog,” a deep and gritty track that was sanitized just three years later by Elvis Presley. Writer-musician Francesca Harding writes that “in the documentary Gunsmoke Blues, Big Mama Thornton recounts her team’s attempts to get her and Elvis on the same bill to perform Hound Dog together. Unsurprisingly, Elvis’ camp refused.”
Even rock and roll’s whole sex and drugs accoutrements were in place long before the genre’s most oft-cited stories of debauchery made the rounds. There are plenty of blues artists who sang about both, but Lucille Bogan’s “dirty blues” tracks—“B.D. Woman’s Blues,” (the B.D. is for “bulldagger” or “bull dyke”), Sloppy Drunk Blues among them—were almost exclusively about sex and more.
On “Shave ‘em Dry” she sings ”Now if fuckin' was the thing/That would take me to heaven/I'd be fuckin’ in the studio/Till the clock strike eleven/Oh daddy, daddy shave ‘em dry/I would fuck you baby/Honey I'd make you cry.” That same songs includes the lyric “I got somethin’ between my legs’ll make a dead man come,” which Mick Jagger references near the very end of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.”
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that’s only true when the imitation is recognized as such. Black women were doing rock and roll before it had a name, and they deserve to be recognized in the same household way as the men who followed suit.
“Blues is just the theatrical name for gospel,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe told a British fan back in 1960, “and true gospel should be slow, like we start off with “Amazin’ Grace”...Then you clap your hands a little and that’s ‘jubilee’ or ‘revival’...and then you get a little happier and that’s jazz... and then you make it like rock ’n’ roll.”