Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock n’ Roll

Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Elvis are beheld in bedrock status of what is broadly regarded as rock ’n’ roll music. But a new Gibson Collection celebrating the 61st anniversary of the Gibson SG lays the age-old debate of which of these legendary guitarists came first, to rest.

Videos by American Songwriter

The recent collection and campaign contest the notion that the founding father of rock ’n’ roll is even a man. A tribute video featuring Amythyst Kiah and Celisse urges that before The Beatles covered Berry and Elvis was crowned King, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe: A black woman wielding a Gibson Les Paul SG to pave the way for proceeding players now touted as pioneers. 

Amythyst Kiah and Celisse; Courtesy Gibson

Hailing from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Tharpe broke through in an era when women lacked a voice. In a historic set of  “firsts,” the gospel-trained artist straddled traditional and modern music merging the two to deliver dynamic music to the masses via a female-fronted band, led by Gibson’s iconic solid-bodied electric guitar.

Gibson’s The Sister Rosetta Tharpe Collection is part of an ongoing effort to establish the undeniable imprint of an artist often excluded from the modern history of American music. Impactful black female artists in their own right, Celisse and Kiah offer their perspectives on the icon’s influence on their careers. 

Serving as a narrator, Celisse describes an epiphany brought on by her first encounter with Tharpe on YouTube performing “Up Above My Head” in front of a gospel choir. “She had the hair, and the dress, and the posture,” Celisse explains. This vision gave Celisse the sense that her artistry was a “birthright.” 

“The ability to stand in front of a stage and play guitar like that, I’m standing on the shoulders of black women I didn’t even realize had paved the way,” she says.

Kiah also admits to having “missed the memo.” The Chattanooga-born artist credits her audiophile father for her eclectic mix of influences. “But of the hundreds of artists that he had on the shelf,” she says, “neither of us ever heard Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”

Like Celisse, she stumbled upon Tharpe’s rollicking gospel performance of “Up Above My Head” around age 20. “This very nice-looking church lady in her ‘Sunday Best’ holding this Gibson SG — it was an image I had never seen before,” she recalls. “I was in shock, and then I saw her play.”

Struck by the 1947 performance, Kiah considered the weight of such representation. Despite her late discovery, she resonates with the contradictory image of a proper mid-century woman posing with an electric guitar. 

“I thought, ‘How in the hell did I go through all this and not know?” Kiah muses.

The question haunted her, bringing up the hidden histories she uncovered while studying music at ETSU. She transferred there from UT Chattanooga after losing her mother and opted into bluegrass guitar class. Her professor, Jack Tottle’s thorough grasp of the genre lineage propelled Kiah down a path that built a strong foundation of understanding black contributions to American music. 

“It’s a matter of fully recognizing that there is no such thing as black music and white music,” she says. “Unfortunately, because of the nature of the history of commercial music, I have to explain why a black person is playing the banjo. I don’t think it should be a birthright to play music that you enjoy. But because there is this racial identification, I had to explain not only can I play whatever the hell I want, but there is actually a history that makes my presence here not some crazy far-fetched idea.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe; Courtesy Gibson

Popular memory credits Joel Sweeney for inventing the banjo after the West African instrument had been in the country 100 years, and the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour for birthing arena rock two decades after Tharpe’s wedding/concert outsold the Senators at DC’s Griffith Stadium on July 3, 1951, with an estimated audience of 20,000. The Sister Rosetta Tharpe Collection is part of a campaign to align popular memory with the undeniable legacy of the lesser-known godmother of rock ’n’ roll.   

Digging deeper into Tharpe’s vast imprint reinforced Kiah’s artistic intentions as a representative for those who have yet to see dreams reflected in a relatable figure. Growing up, Kiah was encouraged to explore things outside of the context of race. She admits her inspirations since picking up the guitar at 13 were mostly white. But representation remains critical as she understands not everyone is in an environment where curiosity is fostered. 

“This project is an opportunity to put together a visual for people to see there’s a reality that exists,” she says. “That can spark a change.”

The documentary-style ode concludes with Kiah and Celisse’s rendition of “Didn’t It Rain.” Dressed in white garments to match their sleek Gibson SGs, the video mimics Tharpe’s infamous 1964 performance with Muddy Waters for train passengers on the platform at Whalley Railway Station-Manchester, England.

“Her pure joy being on stage playing guitar and singing is so infectious and powerful,” Kiah says. “Despite all that she had to navigate, she was able to bring that love and joy to what she was doing. That song performance, the visual, is just amazing.”

This performance with Celisse marks a milestone: the first time that Kiah ever played guitars with another black woman. Between Kiah’s signature timekeeping ability on baseline and rhythm and Celisse’s epic solo, the two artists embraced the full-bodied nature of the historically significant performance event. 

This project peels back the layers to reveal Tharpe’s critical contribution to the current landscape. In outlining Tharpe’s experience as a black woman touring across the Jim Crow-era South, Kiah compares the modern interpretation of the tour bus as a status symbol of achievement to the necessity of the tour bus as a place of lodging for Tharpe who was not allowed to stay in hotels with her white backing musicians.

“Being part of this campaign helps continue that process of unpacking,” says Kiah. “There are just so many little profound moments overlapping with one another.”

The feeling brought her back to early 2020, opening for Yola’s debut US headline tour. “I had a little spot to sleep on Yola’s bus and I remember one night we were up talking about how a black female headliner, with a black female support artist, with five Grammy nominations between the both of us — her having four — were playing sold-out rooms across the country. It was truly incredible. And that’s kind of how I feel about this particular project.

“I know that this is a step into new territory and visibility,” Kiah says. “Having played guitar for 20 years, the opportunity to be on a project and present Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the most respectful, loving way possible with Celisse, is monumental, not only in my career but in my personal and spiritual life as well.”

SIDEBAR – Gibson’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe Collection

Courtesy Gibson

To celebrate the 61st anniversary of the 1961 Les Paul SG Custom electric guitar, Gibson turns to spotlight back to one of the first artists of note to play the best-selling instrument with the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Collection

In an era when women — especially women of color — did not have a voice, Tharpe traversed the Jim Crow South, pushing boundaries and genre borders while establishing herself as an audacious performer. Her iconic look as a proper woman always sporting the 1961 Les Paul SG was representative of her contrasting blend of traditional styles with modern rock that marks the pages of music history. The dynamic artist was among the first women to front a band, which placed her favorite guitar, Gibson’s SG in the foreground of the rock ’n’ roll movement. 

The limited-edition lifestyle and accessories collection, and accompanying tribute campaign expands upon Tharpe’s often overlooked yet undoubtedly foundational imprint on modern music, further touting the trailblazer gospel performer as the “Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll.” Folding into the 60th Anniversary 1961 Les Paul SG Custom with sideways vibrola, the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Collection was thoughtfully crafted to align with the Polaris White finish of the electric guitar’s all-mahogany body design.

The merchandise offerings include camp flags, pennants, guitar straps, pins, tee shirts, and tour jackets — all designed to both honor Tharpe’s legacy and spark conversation to further establish the matriarch’s contributions to modern music.

Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter and roots music aficionado Amythyst Kiah joined Celisse — singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, performer, and spoken word who has collaborated with artists from Graham Nash and Lizzo — in honoring Tharpe through a tribute video and duo guitar performance of “Didn’t It Rain.”

“There’s a lot of thought put into it, which is always appreciated,” says Kiah. “This merchandise is supposed to be representing your project; it’s supposed to get people talking and asking questions. And if you put something together that has no rhyme or reason to it, it’s gonna be hard to start the conversation. I’m really happy with what they’ve done with this merchandise. I think a lot of people are gonna really dig it.”

Photo courtesy Gibson

Leave a Reply

“Everybody Plays the Fool” Grammy-Winning Songwriter Ken Williams Dies at 83