At Richmond Magazine, Craig Belcher writes on the life and musical legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the electric-guitar playing gospel singer widely recognized as the mother of rock ‘n’ roll. While the legendary artist made Richmond, Virginia, her home for over a decade, the city has yet to honor her — her home was seized and sold off to cover unpaid taxes decades ago and her grave went unmarked until 2009. Belcher says it’s long past time that Richmond made it up to the late, great recording artist whose blues-infused gospel sound and soulful performances influenced the likes of Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton.
There’s a two-lane stretch of highway between the Arkansas towns of Cotton Plant and Brinkley that was renamed last year. It’s now the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Highway, in honor of the woman who created rock ‘n’ roll.
Yes, a woman.
And yes, she played an electric guitar.
With a badass manner that defied tradition and expectation, she shouted about the Lord and her lovers — male and female — with a voice full of grit and gall that captivated crowds. Years later, guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards and Chuck Berry would mimic her movements and playing style, putting the finishing touches on the genre she shaped.
“Can’t no man play like me,” she’d say whenever she was compared with her male peers. “I play better than a man.”
Tharpe’s time in Richmond ended abruptly, and in a way that has only helped to diminish her legacy.
In 1957, while on tour out of the country, her home and all of her belongings were seized and auctioned. Lonnie Smith Sr. told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1981 that the foreclosure of her home had been related to unpaid taxes.
It was a sad end to her relationship with the city that for so long had served as a home base. She would never again return to Richmond and never again enjoy the same musical success.