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The Story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a gospel-singing Black woman who astounded audiences in the 1940s and 50s with her guitar pyrotechnics and powerful soprano.
Tharpe was considered by many to be “The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, who influenced rock legends such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Richards, Elvis Presley and Little Richard.
Tharpe had a rumoured romantic relationship with singer Marie Knight, among other women, and might have been bisexual or lesbian.
Tharpe’s amazing talents were recognised when she was posthumously inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“America’s first gospel rock star, Sister Rosetta Tharpe paved the way for rock & roll to grip new audiences,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame said about the pioneering musician.
Mick Csaky’s documentary “Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll,” aired in 2013.
“Despite not being a household name today, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century,” the documentary said.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “flamboyance, skill, and showmanship on the newly electrified guitar played a vital role in the conception of Rock & Roll as a genre of music,” the documentary said.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Tharpe, was christened Rosetta Nubin. She picked up a guitar at 4 and then, two years later, started singing at church with her mom.
Tharpe eventually moved to Chicago and experimented with different musical styles. She married gospel with Delta blues and New Orleans jazz with her howling electric guitar to create her signature sound. That musical creation also helped her appeal to a larger audience.
Tharpe was catapulted into the music mainstream with her 1938 record “Rock Me.”
Seven years later, her 1945 track “Strange Things Happening Every Day” is acknowledged as the first gospel song to cross over to the “race” charts, which later was renamed the R&B charts. The song reached No 2 and was a huge influence for rock ‘n’ roll.
Tharpe’s incendiary guitar playing was revolutionary and pioneering, decades before other male guitarists. Nobody – not Chuck Berry, not Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley’s famed guitarist), not James Burton, not Keith Richards – played wilder or more primal rock ’n’ roll guitar than this woman who gave her life to God. With a Gibson SG in her hands, Sister Rosetta could raise the dead, and that was before she started to sing.
Tharpe’s musical relationships also raised a few eyebrows. In 1946, Tharpe met singer Marie Knight, and after they recorded “Up Above My Head,” the two women teamed up and went on tour. The women worked together until 1950.
Rumours circulated for years that the women had a romantic relationship. Tharpe also had been married previously twice to men. She married a third time in 1951.
In 2007, Gayle Wald wrote a biography about the trailblazing musician, “Shout, Sister, Shout!” Tharpe died in 1973 and didn’t leave any archives or written record about her life, Wald said.
When Wald asked Knight about the rumours of an intimate relationship with Tharpe, Knight told her they were untrue.
Sexuality and identity
Wald also interviewed other sources who spoke about Tharpe’s attractions to men and women, but none of them would go on the record, Wald said.
“Do I think Sister Rosetta Tharpe had attractions to and sexual relations with women? Yes,” Wald said. “But I don’t know if she used any words to identify herself.”
Wald said she wasn’t surprised that people didn’t go on the record about Tharpe’s sexuality.
“In the gospel world, it was understood that people protected each other’s privacy. You didn’t want to ruin anyone’s career or life,” Wald said. “That way, people lived their lives as openly as they could.”
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe lived with a certain amount of openness,” Wald said. “It was typical for people to be out, but there was no attempt to be public or for their private life to be a part of their public identity.”
Health problems, Blues Hall of Fame
Tharpe continued to have success through the 1950s, but by the time the 1960s rolled around, she began to lose fans to a new musical revolution. Tharpe then moved to England and performed her signature music for young blues fans of London and Liverpool.
Tharpe performed less live gigs after having a stroke in 1970. Three years later, 9 October 1973, on the eve of a recording session in Philadelphia, Tharpe suffered another stroke and died.
On 15 July 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp to honour Tharpe.
In 2007, Tharpe was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. A Pennsylvania historical marker was placed at her former residence in Yorktown, a Philadelphia neighbourhood. Later, 11 January was designated Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania.
Rare footage of Fire Island gay wedding offers a peek at pre-Stonewall era LGBT life
Home movie enthusiasts, take note: those old videos could be worth some big money one day!
Rare footage of a mock gay wedding on Fire Island recently sold for a whopping $980 on eBay. The footage, taken sometime in the 1960s, shows two men – one in a wedding dress – undergoing a marriage rite before a group of joyful onlookers.
The same reel also shows two men in speedos wrestling, men in swimsuits hanging out by a pool, and another scene of men engaging in some kind of … bondage play?
Before you get too excited, the eBay listing specifies that the film contains no footage of sexually explicit acts. It also states that the origins of the footage is unknown, though the Fire Island locations are clearly identifiable.
“While you do see some women and children, the bulk of the 3in 8mm home movie features gay men at the beach,” the listing reads. “There is no nudity no sexual acts this is a HOME MOVIE.”
The footage in question offers a rare look into the pre-Stonewall era of LGBT life. At the time, LGBT people could only live openly in a handful of pockets around the country, as gay sex was outlawed. Even the insinuation that someone could be gay could destroy a career.
Fire Island became one of those havens for LGBT people thanks to its isolated location and beach scenery. It remains very popular with LGBT vacationers today.
Given the danger in filming LGBT people living openly – and the danger in the recording said activity – the historical value of the footage in question is very high. Here’s hoping somebody who paid for it gets it digitised and released to the public.
Footage of a gay pool party in 1945 has surfaced online and it’s pretty incredible
Footage of a gay pool party in 1945 surfaced online and it’s pretty incredible.
The lost home videos were discovered by Geoff Story, a filmmaker from St Louis. He tells Nancy Fowler at St Louis Public Radio that he stumbled upon them 20-some years ago at an estate sale of the now-deceased Buddy Walton.
Walton was often referred to as St Louis’ “hairdresser to the stars” and did hair for everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Ethel Merman whenever they passed through town. He was known for throwing lavish pool parties at his property.
“These men are still in their 20s in the sun, swimming, like they always will,” Story says. “There’s a real sweet pain, and when you watch it, there’s a happiness but you can’t believe it’s so long ago and you can’t touch it – it’s gone.”
Finding the footage sparked an idea for a documentary. Story set out to find gay men who were alive in the 1940s and talk to them about their lives and experiences.
His new film Gay Home Movie, which he’s currently working on, offers a rare peek into a largely invisible world when LGBT people were forced to live and love in the shadows.
Story has high hopes for the documentary, which has already captured the interest of gay Hollywood executive Brian Graden, best known for his role in developing South Park.
“It speaks to a wide array of people on a very deep level,” Graden tells Fowler. “What are the chances someone would go to an estate sale and pick up these canisters of old footage? It’s almost like these men are trying to talk to us from beyond the grave.”