Rock and roll music came from a variety of sources: the blues, rhythm and blues,* country, and -- sneaking in the back way -- from gospel. And one of the great pioneers of the gospel sound that was incorporated into rock music was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Tharpe was born in Arkansas as Rosetta Nubin. Her mother, Katie Bell Nubin,** was an evangelist and singer, and young Rosetta took up guitar at an early age, playing and singing well enough to be something of a sensation by the 1920s. In the mid-1930s, she moved to New York to further her career as a singer and guitarist, briefly marrying Rev. Thomas Thorpe, and changing her stage name to "Tharpe" once the marriage ended.
She started recording in 1938 and became a popular star because of her ability to perform both traditional gospel numbers and uptempo tunes. She was an early crossover artist, selling the gospel records to one group, and the more rocking numbers to the general public and catching on with white audiences (to the dismay of her gospel fans).
Her most famous song, "Up Above My Head," was recorded in the late 1940s with her singing partner at the time, Marie Knight. It shows how joyous -- and surprisingly modern -- her music could be.***
Tharpe was not only a great singer, but an excellent guitarist. She was not content to play rhythm guitar only, but would break off in solos that still sound good today.****
Tharpe and Knight were a popular recording act up until around 1951, when they made a misstep and tried to move into the blues. It failed, and her gospel audience -- which didn't like the more secular road her music was taking -- abandoned her. She broke up with Knight and tried to do more popular tunes, but she didn't catch on with the mass audience. The move may have been too soon -- rock 'n roll had yet to catch on and by the time it did, she had lost her record contract. Still, she continued performing until her death in 1973, respected by musicians, but forgotten by the general public.
Sister Rosetta has been rediscovered and credited as an influence by many big name acts like Elvis, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, and Johnny Cash. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007.
*Similar, but not the same thing.
**There is no record of her father.
***The version with Knight is even better than this, but that was before the days of television and doesn't seem to be available.
***Some writers claim that she invented the "windmill" style of guitar made famous by Pete Townsend of the Who. However, I haven't been able to track down footage of her doing it. What I have seen was that she would move her hand away from the guitar as a flourish when the solo ended (see the video above). It's not the full windmill that made Townsend famous.