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Once upon a time, there was a girl with a song in her heart. Her name was Sister Rosetta Tharpe — a guitar-playing, gospel-singing legend whose unique style and stage-presence inspired the greatest rock musicians of the last century. She is known as the godmother of rock n’ roll and was posthumously inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Kateri Bluford is an American singer, born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who gained national and international acclaim after appearing on Season 2 of The Four starring Sean Combs, DJ Khaled, Megan Trainor and host Fergie. Bluford captivated audiences with her powerful rendition of Tasha Cobbs “I’m Getting Ready” and Celine Dion’s legendary Grammy Award-winning song “Because You Loved Me”. As a rising star, the young artist stays true to her deeply rooted faith and the inspiration of her mentors Bishop Darrell and Pastor Pamela Hines. There is a divine power that resonates when Bluford performs that harkens to her Gospel roots, something she embraces in the entirety of her life. “I’m on a mission to heal the world,” commented Kateri, who has struggled over the years with her own identity and self-confidence. There is power in music and Kateri Bluford is on a trajectory of success and transformation. Kateri Bluford also toured with Jonathan Mcreynolds this past spring and summer of 2019.
|Once upon a time…there was a girl with a song in her heart.
Her name… was Rosetta.
Four-year-old Rosetta, or as her family and friends called her, Rosie Etta, scampered down a dirt road. She followed her mother past the few shops and businesses until they reached the Cotton Plant Arkansas Church of God and Christ Church. Her shiny shoes and the hem of her dark gray dress quickly became covered in a fine layer of dust.
When they arrived, Rosie stood in line at the water pump to rinse off her shoes, hands, and dress. She dried her shoes on the grass and settled into a creaky pew with her mother, Katie.
“Rosie Etta, don’t fidget,” Katie whispered, adjusting her hat. “You’ll do great.”
Church was one of Rosie’s favorite times of the week. On Sundays, her mama took a break from working. The entire community gathered at church to sing, dance, stomp, and shout their joy to the rafters so loud that God and the angels could hear.
Everyone was waving their arms, humming, and swaying. Some people dabbed at their faces with tissues or waved paper fans to fight the humid air.
When it was her turn, Rosie slid out of the pew and walked to the front. The musicians upfront played welcoming music on the piano to coax her forward.
Rosie grinned when one of the musicians handed her a big guitar. It was so heavy she almost couldn’t carry it. But her fingers and her voice knew just what to do. She took a deep breath and sang as loud as she could.
Soon, Rosie would grow up to be an international gospel star who rocked out on the electric guitar.
I’m Kateri Bluford. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode: Rosetta Tharpe, the godmother of rock and roll who knew how to shred on any guitar, and inspired every rock star who came after her.
Rosie Etta sat on a train staring glumly out the window. There was nothing she wanted more than to go back home to the small town she knew. But her mother had decided to pack up a few bags and take her daughter to Chicago.
Rosie missed her father. She didn’t know it yet, but she would never see him again.
In Chicago though, they joined an even bigger church. Rosie almost forgot how sad she was when the band burst out with its loud happy music and upbeat instrumental music. Church goers slapped tambourines against their legs, and musicians played piano, drums, and trumpets. It felt like a huge party every week.
The church community felt just like home. There was just one thing missing. Rosie Etta wanted to put on a show!
Katie introduced her daughter as the “singing and guitar-playing miracle.” Everyone was curious about the little girl and wanted to see what she could do.
One Sunday, the pastor lifted Rosie up on the piano so that everybody could see her. Then he handed her a too-big guitar.
The moment she opened her mouth and let out her big voice, it was clear Rosie Etta was special. She felt every song deep in her heart.
People traveled far and wide just to hear Rosie Etta sing. Church attendance was better than ever.
Sometimes, she got to church to practice so early she slept in the pews on the soft cushions waiting for church to start. After a quick nap, eleven-year-old Rosie was raring to go.
Her hands danced across the guitar strings, and her voice went up and down, loud and soft. She added extra words and a little extra Rosie flare.
Soon, Katie and Rosie Etta took their show on the road. They were invited to play at church meetings, services, and several day church revival services in big tents all over the Midwest and beyond.
If anyone started to get antsy when the preacher was talking, Rosie learned how to bring life back into the service. She could pull even the most bored person into her spellbinding musical web. And she knew just when to quiet down so the preacher could launch back into the sermon.
On one of these trips, Rosie met a young preacher, Thomas Tharpe. At nineteen, Rosie got married and joined his church. On Sundays, he preached and she played her famous guitar. But people were there more for her than for her husband.
She shone much brighter than him and he didn’t like that. He tried to control her, and she started getting tired of it. Even though they had their problems, she got up every Sunday morning to sing.
It was the last straw when he found another woman he liked better. Despite how much she loved him, he had hurt her too much. Rosie Etta left mean old preacher Thomas and took her talents to New York City.
In New York, she could reinvent herself. Instead of performing in churches, she decided she would branch out to non-religious venues. She kept the name “Tharpe” and started going by “Rosetta” instead of Rosie Etta like when she was a kid.
Rosetta Tharpe found a job singing in the famous Cotton Club that hosted singers, dancers, actors, and comedians from all over. Although the club was usually whites-only, they made exceptions for black artists.
The sign outside the club read “Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” When she got inside, it was nothing like what she was used to. Everyone was white, and most of the performers wore wild colors and sequins.
She felt out of place in her modest dress, but she brought her bright smile and her heartfelt songs. She held her guitar like a trusted old friend and cheerfully faced the crowd to belt out a song. She made them feel the song all the way down to their bones.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s fame grew and grew. She recorded her songs and her music was snatched up from the stores like hotcakes. Record companies sent Rosetta’s songs abroad to entertain soldiers during World War II. She performed at the famous Black nightclub Cafe Society, at Carnegie Hall as an honored guest, and all across America.
“That girl could play that guitar,” fans said. “Lord have mercy. She would make it talk!”
“Made that guitar walk and talk!” another audience member chimed in. “Go on, girl! Make it talk, Rosetta!”
Most people loved Rosetta, but not everyone did. There were debates about whether her music was religious enough for church. Some folks liked her new style of non-religious music, but some people wanted her to be more traditionally spiritual and only sing about how much she loved God. Some folks wanted her to be a modest, quiet, feminine woman.
Rosetta’s mean old ex-husband even came to one of her shows to yell at her for not being modest enough during her concerts.
“Cover your head!” Thomas said, chastising her for not wearing a hat.
Rosetta ignored him and headed home. She had enough rules at home as it was, from her mother Katie, who now went by the name “Mother Bell.”
Mother Bell wanted to make sure her daughter followed their strict religious principles. There were a lot of no’s.
No non-church music on Sundays.
No record player in the house.
No showing your bare legs or arms.
Rosetta followed most of these rules, but she and her friend Roxie liked to dance. They would pull out the radio and dance around the apartment where nobody could see.
“Girls, you girls, you all ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” said Mother Bell.
“Ma Bell, you don’t understand!” the young women protested.
“Yes, I do,” Mother Bell huffed.
Rosetta and Roxie just grinned at each other. They followed most of the rules, but they knew which ones could be bent.
One day, Rosetta heard a voice that she felt would harmonize perfectly with her own. The voice belonged to a woman named Marie Knight, a slender, elegant lady with bright, shining eyes. Her talented fingers danced across the white piano keys with grace.
A plan started to form in Rosetta’s mind. Maybe Marie would want to travel with her group of gospel musicians.
Rosetta begged her to join. Even though Marie had two small children, she left them in the capable hands of their grandmother and agreed. The very next day, Rosetta and Marie took a train to the Midwest to perform in Chicago and Detroit as “Sister Rosetta Tharpe featuring special guest Madame Marie Knight.”
Marie and Rosetta wore fancy white dresses, sparkly earrings, and fur coats. Their stylist did their hair and makeup.
When they stepped out from behind the curtain, Marie and Rosetta’s smiles shone almost as bright as the stage lights.
Their first shows were new and fun, but both of them were serious about their music. At all hours of the day and night, Marie and Rosetta rehearsed in Rosetta’s small New York apartment. The neighbors complained, but the two didn’t care. They wanted to make sure their show was as perfect as it could be.
All that practice paid off. People loved seeing the two of them together. They’d wear silly costumes and crack jokes during the show. They’d switch instruments and take turns singing or playing solo.
Some people thought they were in love with each other because Rosetta loved both men and women. But Marie insisted that they were just best friends, and Rosetta kept the details of her private life quiet.
But then Marie’s family suffered a terrible tragedy. So she stopped traveling with Rosetta and headed home to New Jersey to be with her family. Even though their tour was over, the two stayed friends for their whole lives.
Rosetta’s biggest concert ever was also her wedding. With joyful, carnival-like flair, signs everywhere read:
Wedding Bells Ring Out For…
Witness the most elaborate wedding ever staged! Everybody welcome!
Plus world’s greatest spiritual concert
In 1951, Rosetta stepped onto the stage wearing an outfit that was roughly the price of a brand new car during that year. A rhinestone and pearl encrusted tiara rested among her curls. Her sequin-trimmed veil trailed behind her as her white satin heels clicked across the stage.
The wedding was lavish and expensive, but the concert was the main event. Rosetta and dozens of her famous musical artist friends performed for 20,000 guests.
At the end of the show, fireworks lit up the night sky with images of a giant Rosetta playing guitar, a cupid arrow, hearts, a waterfall, and a duck laying eggs. She wanted to go out with a bang!
After her wedding, Rosetta kept performing for audiences all over America, but she wanted to try something new. She switched from acoustic guitar to electric, and experimented with the new sound. She wailed and pranced around stage, blending jazz, blues, and gospel sounds together to create a whole new genre.
Then she brought her unique sound to Europe. She performed in Britain, France, Switzerland, Denmark, and Sweden. The people there didn’t know much about Black people, but they were sure excited to hear her play.
“You know, there is nothing like a friendly, warm audience. It makes you feel that what you are doing and saying is reaching inside people,” Rosetta told reporters.
As Rosetta got older, she started to feel sicker and sicker. Her music wasn’t as popular as it was before her lavish wedding concert, but she went on traveling and playing music until she couldn’t anymore. She had music in her bones.
Rosetta passed away in 1973. Marie Knight prepared Rosetta’s clothes and makeup for the funeral as a final gesture of their strong friendship.
Rosetta’s music influenced hundreds of famous rock star legends. But Rosetta was possibly the first rock star. It’s said that her song “Strange Things Happen Every Day” was the first rock song ever produced.
When she heard about a new name for a genre of music, she laughed and said: “All this new stuff they call rock n’ roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years.”
She was inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. People now call Sister Rosetta Tharpe the Godmother of Rock n’ Roll.