When in the year 2012 Brittany Howard introduced herself to the world leading her own band, the Alabama Shakes, with her Gibson SG hanging off her shoulder, her image caused a big impact among ordinary mortals. She was a robust black American woman who played guitar and sang her own songs that captured the attention onstage of a band that was far from ordinary. Well, if that drew attention in 2012, imagine what caused a shock 70 years before, today’s protagonist Rosetta Tharpe, in a racist, male chauvinistic country at unbelievable levels, such as it was in the USA.
Born surrounded by cotton fields and misery, she had no choice but to look to music for the freedom that was denied her in her day-to-day life. However, what interests us more, apart from her marvellous voice, is that this girl from the South became an authentic pioneer in not only R&B music, but also in guitar playing techniques that coming guitarists would use to make the whole world dance.
Her voice profoundly influenced artists such as Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash, but thanks to a tour of the U.K. in 1964, there are many Brit legends who cite her as one of their first influences; we’re talking about people like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. So there you go.
Those young British guitarists saw Rosetta Tharpe with her most iconic guitar, mainly because it is what is best conserved on audiovisual recordings: her Gibson Les Paul (SG) from the early 60s (many of you will remember that originally the SG was introduced as the new Les Paul design and was named so, until Les Paul himself objected to it because he hated that model, when finally it was re-baptised as the SG)
But before that guitar, Rosetta Tharpe obviously started off by playing any acoustic guitar she could get her hands on. Her step into the electric years later was done with Gibson’s help, first with an L-5 and later as we can see in the photos, a Gibson Barney Kessel, a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop from ‘52 with two P-90 pickups, which she probably already liked since later she would choose a Gibson ES-330 also fitted with the same mic set.
With the help of these guitars and her powerful voice, this authentic bigger-than-life woman left her mark on the history of music; a mark, which by the way, didn’t even have a proper grave thanks to the stingy nature of her last husband who didn’t put her name on the tombstone where her remains rest for the rest of time. Legend has it that that same husband, hours later, sold her mythic SG for a few dollars...but time puts everyone in their place, even after death, and today nobody remembers the the name of that wretch, but we all remember the name of sister Rosetta Tharpe.