Tharpe, Thornton & Turner: The Women Of Colour Who Shaped Rock’n’Roll

Tharpe, Thornton & Turner: The Women Of Colour Who Shaped Rock’n’Roll

tina, rosetta, big mama
L: Tina Turner (Photo by Jorgen Angel/Redferns). C: Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Photo by Tony Evan). R: Big Mama Thornton (Michael Ochs Archives) via Getty Images. 

Enjoy this snapshot into some of the incredible women of colour who, often discounted by their male counterparts and society in their time, defined the earliest shifts in blues, jazz, folk and rock. 

Ma Rainey

One of the most influential early Blues singers and recording artists, Ma Rainey was best known for incorporating elements of Vaudeville into her Blues style. Nicknamed the “Mother of Blues”, it was reported she possessed her audiences with her unique and dynamic expressions of performance. Also known as the “Paramount Wildcat” due to extensive marketing by her record label, Paramount, Ma Rainey took Chicago by storm before breaking into success in the Southern states of the USA. 

By 1924, Ma Rainey had recorded with Louis Armstrong, and unlike many female singers of the time, she wrote many of her most popular songs, including Moonshine Blues. Her explosive showmanship and voice, along with her skilled ability as a writer, made her one of the highest-paid female artists of the time – earning enough money to buy a bus with her name on the side. 

Memphis Minnie

Before performing music with a travelling circus, Memphis Minnie started her music career as a street performer in Tennessee in her early teens at the turn of the 20th century. Learning to play both guitar and banjo by the age of eleven in 1908, she went on to write, record and perform over 200 songs across her three-decade career. 

Throughout the 1930s, Memphis Minnie toured extensively and cut over 20 sides for Decca Records. By 1941 she was one of few females playing electric guitar and recorded her biggest hit Me and My Chauffeur Blues on Okeh Records, amongst other Blues standards. 

Inducted into the Blues Foundations Hall of fame in 1980, her legacy has been honoured by bands as diverse as Jefferson Airplane, Donovan and Mazzy Star who have all covered her songs. When The Levee Breaks, originally written by Kansa Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929 was adapted with altered melody and lyrics by Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin IV.  

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Undoubtedly one of the most important people in the origins of rock’n’roll in the late 1930s and early ’40s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was known for combining gospel lyrics with electric guitar. Her style appealed to rock’n’roll and RnB audiences who dubbed her the “Godmother of Rock and Roll” and paved the way for artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis. Even Johnny Cash has cited her as one of his greatest childhood influences. 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s innovative distorted guitar style was revolutionary at the time, ahead of the electric blues movement of the ’60s. She pioneered and pushed spiritual music into the mainstream – establishing her as one of the first commercially successful gospel singers.

It is utterly heartbreaking to know that a great deal of her music was destroyed in the Universal Music fire of 2008. 

Big Mama Thornton

Before Elvis, Big Mama Thornton was the first person to record Hound Dog in 1952, which sold millions of copies and stayed at the top of the Billboard R&B chart for seven weeks. Despite the huge success, she barely saw any profit. 

Having written Ball and Chain, later made popular by Janis Joplin, she never received any compensation for the ownership of the composition, instead only praising Janis Joplin on her interpretation, saying “that girl feels like I do”. 

The name “Big Mama” was given to her for her huge personality, imposing size and explosive expression in her voice, who she said was influenced by the great Bessie Smith

Georgia Lee

Of Torres Strait Island descent, Georgia Lee started from humble beginnings in QLD and rose to the world jazz stage and back home to tour with Nat King Cole in the 1950’s. Notably, she is credited as the first female artist to cut a recording in stereo and was Australia's first indigenous jazz and blues singer.

Ronnie Spector

Dubbed as the original “bad girl of rock’n’roll”, Ronnie Spector was the lead vocalist and founder of The Ronettes who had a string of huge hits in the early to mid ’60s, including Be My Baby and Baby, I Love You – produced by her then husband, Phil Spector. In the mid-60’s, The Ronettes were voted the third most popular group in the UK behind The Rolling Stones and the Beatles, who they toured with in 1966.

Ronnie Spector was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 as a member of The Ronettes and has gone on to produce and write with many great artists. Last year it was revealed that Zendaya will play the role of Ronnie Spector in a forthcoming biopic. 

Merry Clayton

Due only to being a last-minute replacement for backing vocals on The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, Merry Clayton also sang a duet with Bobby Darin and performed with Ray Charles

As if that’s not impressive enough, Merry Clayton is credited as singing backing vocals on “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd AND starred as the original Acid Queen in The Who’s first production of Tommy in London.

We highly recommend checking out the Oscar-winning film, 20 Feet From Stardom, in which Clayton stars within a storyline about the lives of backing singers. 

Tina Turner

Icon, legend and undoubtably one of the greatest performers of the last century. Before she was Simply, The Best and before winning 12 Grammy Awards and before what is cited as one of the greatest music comebacks of all time – she was widely referred to as the “Queen of Rock’n’Roll” – yes, before all of that. 

From the mid-’60s through to the ’70s, we all know the story of how she outshone Ike Turner with her fierce performance and mesmerising vocal ability - and for that paid the price at his abusive hand. Did she give up? No chance. 

At risk of becoming a nostalgia act in the late 70s, it was her signing to Capitol Records in 1983 that saw the resurgence of her career and launch into superstardom. Queue Private Dancer in 1984, add immeasurable commercial success, throw in a role in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, an iconic NRL commercial and a record-breaking World tour – oh, and a smash with our very own Jimmy Barnes – and it’s not hard at all to understand why Tina Turner’s legacy is beyond measure.


Of course, there are many more who paved the way for other women to build successful careers in music that lived between Ma Rainey and Tina Turner. If you enjoyed this small list, we recommend you also take a listen through the catalogues of Odetta, Bessie Smith, Betty Davis, Alice Coltrane and Mahalia Jackson, all who’s profound bravery and artistry were instrumental in forming what we know and love as blues, soul, folk and rock music today.  


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