By Lyndsey Parker, Yahoo Music | It took till 2018 for Sister Rosetta Tharpe for be posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and it was only last month that she was honored with the Grammys’ Lifetime Achievement Award. But while Tharpe, a queer black woman from the South who came up playing music in the church, is only beginning to get her due in the mainstream, her impact has been felt since the very beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll.
Tharpe, who died in 1973, has long been known by guitar aficionados as the “godmother” of the rock genre and “the original soul sister,” and she has been cited as a key influence by everyone from Chuck Berry and Little Richard, to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, to Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Starting in the ‘30s, notably with the 1938 single “Rock Me,” she was one of the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on an electric guitar, foreshadowing the rise of electric/British blues and helping her eventually connect with wider R&B and rock audiences. In fact, her landmark boogie-woogie single, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” was the first gospel record to cross over, going to No. 2 on Billboard’s “race records” chart in 1945.
Tharpe’s recent long-overdue accolades have brought the pioneering guitarist to the attention of younger music fans, as has a recent buzzy Saturday Night Live appearance by Lizzo guitarist and Tharpe disciple Celisse Henderson — who performed Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” on SNL picking the same type of cream-colored Gibson SG Custom that Tharpe used to play, completing the striking look with a “Sister”-emblazoned guitar strap, a modernized haute couture version of Tharpe’s signature coat, and a Rosetta forearm tattoo. The episode is set to replay on NBC on Feb. 15.
To celebrate Black History Month, Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume sat down with Celisse to discuss Tharpe’s legacy and that special, viral SNL moment.
Yahoo Entertainment: It safe to say that sister Rosetta invented rock ‘n’ roll?
Celisse: Yes, it is safe to say that! And I will say it forever. Because so often people point to Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters as the foundation pieces that people pulled from to create the genre — but Chuck and Muddy were going to the clubs and to theaters and to churches to listen to Sister Rosetta. And she was doing this in the ‘30s!
Do you think she is finally getting the attention she deserves?
Well, on one hand, I think it’s a beautiful thing that she’s been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I think it frustrates me a bit that it’s taken this long to induct somebody who created the genre. It feels like this should have been the first person. But, better late than never.
I admit with embarrassment that I didn’t know about her until maybe 10 years ago.
Well, of course you didn’t. Because no one was trying to make sure that you knew. And because she was black and a woman. Two double-whammies,, right? Gail Wald wrote a really incredible book called Shout, Sister, Shout! about her. … We’re just getting to the point to where we’re getting more reissues and more of her music is available digitally. But even 10 years ago, it was hard to find. Her stuff is still hard to find. I started searching for different records and stuff like that. Then when I really started to get into electric guitar six years ago, I was so used to listening to her all the time. She is so inherently such a rhythmic player, and I am very rhythmic-centered with my stuff. I think she’s one of those people where you’ve been influenced by her, whether you know it or not, because so many people have been influenced by her. … I think she’s in all of us, really.
In what specific or surprising ways was Sister Rosetta Tharpe a pioneer?
It’s really wild to think about what she’s done. That guitar she plays, the SG, has becomes such a big iconic rock ‘n’ roll guitar. She literally was a first person playing an SG on TV. She was the first person to have a tour bus with living quarters, with places to sleep in the back and places to ride in the front. She was the first person, but we never talk about it. I think that that sort of erasure happened because of her being a part of marginalized groups. But I think the exciting thing now — especially for someone like me, a young black female player — is I stand directly on her shoulders, and I have the wonderful opportunity to remind everybody. When you look at me and you say, “Oh my God, it’s so crazy, you’re such a novelty, to be a black woman that plays rock ‘n’ roll music,” I actually get to go, “This is a black art form, and it started with a black woman. It’s actually not a novelty at all.” The narrative has been focused on straight white men, but it’s a genre, it’s an instrument that is available to everyone. And I have said and will continue to say that rock ‘n’ roll really is a black woman. The genre is a black woman personified. It is everything a black woman is. Mick Jagger talks a lot about watching the feeling of the black woman singing in church. I mean, that’s really what it is. All of that. It comes from the spirit of gospel music — which is black people, black women.
> > > > > > > > > >
Did they know you were a Sister Rosetta Tharpe super-fan?
I don’t think they knew how deep an influence it was for me. I don’t think they knew that I happen to have chosen to play the guitar that is modeled after her guitar, or that I have a tattoo of her on my forearm… I loved the idea about having this woman on my arm so that every time somebody asked me about my tattoo, I’d get to talk about her. … I mean, it’s deep for me. All of these things just came together really beautifully.
Another important thing I think to note too is initially the way that it was staged, I was going to be upstage with the rest of the band for the whole number. We did a bunch of run-throughs and then Lizzo looked at the staging and was like, “No, I want to make a moment of this. We hired you for a reason.” She opened up that space for us to really have this moment together, to be featured in this way that was completely unexpected, and so generous on a night that was so important for her.
And then your Sister tribute went viral.
Yeah, in my mind I was like, “It’ll be a cool performance and my mom will see it, my nana will see it. It’ll give me something to post about for a day and then it’ll be it.” The next day after SNL happened, I thought, “I should post one more thing about this,” so I went into the layout Instagram app and I put Sister Rosetta’s picture of her in the white coat next to mine and just said, “Hey, catch the reference?” Then is the image that went viral, which made everybody go, “I thought that’s what was going on!” Then a bunch of write-ups happened.
> > > > > > > > > >
The above condensed interview is taken from Celisse’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.
Read the rest of the written interview here: