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AMERICAN MASTERS: Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother Of Rock & Roll

Publicity photo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the age of 23.
Courtesy of Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture/James J. Kriegsman
Publicity photo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the age of 23.

Airs Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

AMERICAN MASTERS opened its 27th season with the story of African-American gospel singer and guitar virtuoso Sister Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973).

One of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Tharpe may not be a household name today, but the flamboyant superstar, with her spectacular playing on the newly electrified guitar, played a pivotal role in the creation of rock ’n’ roll.

Emmy®-winning filmmaker Mick Csáky uncovers her life, music and lasting influence in AMERICAN MASTERS "Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll."


Southern-born, Chicago-raised and New York-made, Sister Rosetta rose from poverty to become one of the world’s most popular gospel singers and the first to cross over successfully into mainstream popular music. She introduced the spiritual passion of gospel into the secular world of rock ’n’ roll, inspiring some of its greatest stars, including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe Playlist

Listen to Sister Rosetta on "The One and Only Queen of Hot Gospel" playlist, curated by the AMERICAN MASTERS team. You’ll have to sign up for a Spotify account to listen. But, you’re in luck: it’s a free service.

A natural-born performer and a rebel, “She could play the guitar like nobody else … nobody!” says Lottie Henry, a member of Tharpe’s back-up vocal group The Rosettes. “Elvis loved Rosetta Tharpe,” attests Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires, who performed with both Sister Rosetta and Elvis. “Not only did he dig her guitar playing but he dug her singing too.”

The child of poor cotton pickers, Sister Rosetta was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. At the age of six, she was taken by her evangelist mother Katie Bell to Chicago to join the Church of God in Christ, where she developed her distinctive performing style.

In 1938, at the age of 23, she briefly left the church for show business, causing huge controversy when she performed songs laden with sexual innuendo in New York City venues such as the famed Cotton Club and Café Society, where she immediately became a favorite of both Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.


However, Sister Rosetta soon returned to her gospel roots and performed in packed churches and theatres throughout America and Europe, becoming one of America’s most distinctive recording stars on radio and television during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

The film features archival performances and new interviews with Joe Boyd, tour manager of the 1964 American Folk, Blues and Gospel Caravan; Howard Carroll of gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds, which toured frequently with Tharpe; Anthony Heilbut, gospel record producer and writer; life-long friend Roxie Moore; Ira Tucker, Jr., son of The Dixie Hummingbirds’ Ira Tucker, Sr.; Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald; and others.


“I like to call Sister Rosetta Tharpe ‘The Godmother of Rock & Roll’ because of the huge influence she has had on so many popular musicians during the past 70 years — from Elvis, Johnny Cash and Etta James to Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Tom Jones, and Eric Clapton, through to the present,” said Csáky, whose past films for AMERICAN MASTERS include "Bob Marley: Rebel Music" (2001), which he executive produced, and "Plácido Domingo: A Musical Life" (1995), which he produced and directed.

“It is my great pleasure to present this British-made film about such a uniquely American woman. Sister Rosetta is unfortunately not known to many of us now, but we have all benefited from her gifts in the music she so deeply influenced,” said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS.


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