This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #155: Strange Things Happening Every Day by Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
There are a great many people who consider the beginning of the Rock n’ Roll era to have been when Elvis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones burst on to the music scene. But, in interviews with all three, they all point out the fact that they were influenced to begin playing by black Blues masters such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Big Joe Turner, Fats Domino, B.B. King and so on. Those great players all played a searing, soulful version of The Blues that, as it turned out, laid a strong foundation for others to follow and, in time, helped create a musical style or sound that became known as “Rock n’ Roll”. But, as it turns out, those early innovators and influencers were, themselves, influenced by the one who really started it all……the original purveyor of Rock n’ Roll…..the one they call The Godmother of Rock, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. This is her story. Buckle up!
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in 1915!!! She was a pioneering, trailblazing person in a multitude of ways. For instance, she was a black performer who played for inter-racial crowds, long before desegregation was ever a twinkle in any law-maker’s eye. She was a female who commanded the stage; belting out songs with a powerful, preacher-like energy and cadence, at a time in society before it was common for a woman to don such a forceful public presence. Finally and, most importantly, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was more than just a singer, she was the very first major stage performer to play the electric guitar and to do so in a manner that we now recognize as playing in a rock n’ roll style. She did all of this in the 1930s and 40s, long before the likes of Robert Johnson ever thought about playing The Blues.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the very first Blues performer to release a song that sold a million copies. That song was, “Strange Things Happening Every Day”. Although she had many songs to her credit such as “Rock Me”, “This Train”, “Down By The Riverside”, “Didn’t It Rain?” and “Up Above My Head”, it is “Strange Things Happening Every Day” that many musicologists claim as being the first true rock n’ roll song ever recorded. As such, Sister Rosetta Tharpe deserves more recognition than she has received because, after all, she was “rockin’ and rollin'” long before anyone else. She is the one who started it all. She is the true originator and innovator. All others followed in her wake.
At first, like many performers of colour, Sister Rosetta Tharpe began her performing career in churches, singing Gospel-inspired songs of Joy and praise to The Lord. Word of her skill travelled fast and soon, offers began arriving from the owners of nightclubs and concert halls for her to come and perform there. And, so she did. The mere fact that she began singing in establishments where “the Devil was known to reside” caused some in her church to cast scorn upon her but, like so much in her life, Sister Rosetta Tharpe used their distain as fuel for her independence. By singing in nightclubs and concert halls; especially, to multi-racial audiences (which was very rare for the times), Sister Rosetta Tharpe came to the attention of record executives and soon, she was signed to a recording contract. At the time when she began releasing records, her sales totals were recorded on a chart that, because of her, became known as the “Rhythm and Blues” chart, which we still use today. Her records were included in selections sent to the troops during WWII, which caused her popularity to increase. After the war, she began touring with fellow Gospel superstar, Mahalia Jackson. Their form of Pop-Gospel and Blues-Gospel took the world by storm. Eventually, in the 1950s, young men such as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and so on, all began coming to her concerts and watching her play. Jerry Lee Lewis, auditioned for Col. Sam Phillips at Sun Records Studio by singing some of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Gospel songs. Johnny Cash always claimed that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was his favourite singer. Little Richard had his live, concert debut on a stage with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as well. A few years later, in the early 1960s, she toured England and ended up playing for teenage boys named John Lennon, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney in Manchester and in Liverpool. To a man, they each say that their desire to play rock n’ roll guitar was stoked by seeing Sister Rosetta Tharpe play for them live. A final note, along the way, Sister Rosetta Tharpe got married. For her wedding, she sold tickets and ended up with over 25, 000 people in attendance. After she exhanged her vows, she performed for the crowd, as only she could, in full wedding regalia.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day” could very easily have been the #1 song on this countdown list; a result that would have been very hard to argue with. For now, I place her here. Doing so, in no way, is reflective of any dimished sense of admiration for her or her accomplishments. I think she is incredible, in all regards. As well, I am not the only one who feels that way. In a recent performance as musical guest of Saturday Night Live, the sensational Lizzo paid homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe during her song by having her female guitarists dress like Sister Rosetta and use the exact same white Gibson guitars as she did throughout her career. It was a gesture by Lizzo that did not go unnoticed. I shall include a video of that performance in the comments section below. It is important to know your history and to honour those who paved the way for others to follow. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is definitely someone who has earned every kudo that she is accorded. There is only one Godmother of Rock n’ Roll and her name is Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
So, without further delay, here is a audio-only video of the song credited with being the first ever rock n’ roll song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day”. I will, also, include a live video of her performing “Didn’t It Rain?” so you can actually watch her perform. The Lizzo ode to Sister Rosetta Tharpe will follow at the end. As will the induction speech given for her at The Rock n’ Roll hall of Fame.
Ladies and Gentlemen, here is Sister Rosetta Tharpe! Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Didn’t It Rain?” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Sister Rosetta Tharpe, can be found here.
The link to the video for Lizzo and her ode to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as shown on Saturday Night Live, can be found here.
The link to the video for Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s induction into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.