Music

Two Southern Trailblazers Get Their Due

Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe will be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame in 2018

Two of the most influential artists to emerge from the South in the last century—Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe—will be among the 2018 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The ceremony will take place on April 14 in Cleveland, Ohio, and include fellow nominees Bon Jovi, the Cars, the Moody Blues, and Dire Straits.

photo: Courtesy of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Nina Simone.

Born in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone—known as “the High Priestess of Soul”—was one of the towering entertainment figures in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. Her songs such as “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Mississippi Goddam” were defining anthems of the time, with music and lyrics that were equal parts hope and rage. She was fearless and uncompromising, a rare artist who was blunt in her truth-telling; she once told Martin Luther King that she “was not going to be non-violent.”

But while she was considered an icon, she admitted that her career suffered because of “Mississippi Goddam.” That and other raw, unflinching songs like “Old Jim Crow” began to alienate portions of her fanbase, and she became convinced that the music industry was undermining her. She also suffered withering martial abuse by her then-husband Andrew Stroud. The stress took its toll: she behaved erratically, turning volatile and charming in a span of seconds, and threatened suicide before eventually being diagnosed as bipolar in the late 1980s.

Simone spent most of her later years in Europe, passing away at her house in the South of France in 2003. But her influence remained profound until the end: Two days before her death, she was awarded an honorary diploma from Curtis Institute, the Philadelphia music school that declined to admit her because she was black when she was 19 years old.

photo: Courtesy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who will be inducted in the Early Influencer category, has been often overlooked as one of the pioneering artists in gospel music and rock & roll. A queer black woman from Arkansas, Tharpe was a killer guitar player and had a voice that rattled the heavens. She was one of the first black musicians to tour with white bands, easily crossing the line between religious and secular music. She was gospel music’s first superstar but was also dubbed as the “Godmother of Rock and Roll,” who had a huge influence on the likes of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry as well as Bob Dylan.

“Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain,” Dylan once said on his Theme Time Radio Hour show. “She was a big, good-lookin’ woman, and divine, not to mention sublime and splendid. She was a powerful force of nature. A guitar-playin’, singin’ evangelist.”