Like all pioneers, there’s no list somewhere of definable points that made Tharpe important. Arguably, she became the inventor of rock n’ roll because of multiple, complementary talents she possessed – and a little bit of luck.
There’s a rather predictable path for people of faith who decided to pursue musical success in a secular world. Sam Cooke, Al Green, Mahalia Jackson – they all in some ways were forced to choose between their religious roots and secular output, with varying degrees of success. It’s a devil’s bargain, with no group ever truly being satisfied with the artist’s choice.
Tharpe, perhaps the original joiner of the two worlds, was better than most at bridging the divide.

Freshly arrived in Chicago from the South at a young age, she quickly found that using all the performance elements associated with the sermon translated well to secular showmanship.
View a performance of hers, like the above Up Above My Head from the mid 1960s Tharpe’s body moves and sways with the guitar, she raises her arm in the air to give the guitar a moment to sing before crashing back down on the strings. Watch it once, twice. It’s something that seems so natural as to be completely obvious. But it wasn’t at the time.

Surrounded by jazz greats in Chicago, Tharpe took the then-popular jazz style – the rolling step of the swing beat, made famous by Fats Waller and others, that put emphasis on the 1 and 3, instead of the 2 and 4– and applied it to her guitar-playing style.
She combined this with her extraordinary picking skills and her gospel-influenced vocals – and all of a sudden rock and roll stands there, blinking in the morning light. Most of Elvis’s early songs were direct duplications of Tharpe’s work. It’s not really a story we’re told too often.
Tharpe, who at one time headlined Carnegie Hall with Cab Calloway, would eventually fade from view, even as people like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis cited her as a seminal influence.
Is the performer they see in front of them an artist… or a vessel?