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Rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe's legacy remembered by Milwaukee siblings, relatives

Posted at 6:09 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-24 19:29:23-05

MILWAUKEE — A rock and roll pioneer with family ties right here in Milwaukee.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe is also the great aunt of TMJ4 News reporter Tony Atkins.

Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, 45 years after she died.

Even though she's gone - her family here says her influence remains stronger than ever.

It was Tony’s younger cousin TeAnna Atkins, a family historian, who decided one day to take things further when it came to learning more about her great aunt’s legacy.

"I think the trigger for me was when I saw an article that she was in an unmarked grave for 30 years,” TeAnna Atkins said.

Nicknamed the 'Godmother of Rock and Roll,' Sister Rosetta drew large crowds, influencing generations of artists such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Little Richard.

Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915, Sister Rosetta moved north, to Chicago, with her mother, where she eventually developed into the musical icon she's remembered as today.

Her father, Willie Atkins, remained in Arkansas.

"She talked a lot about my daddy. She wanted to know more about my daddy because she thought I looked like my daddy,” said Donell Atkins, Rosetta’s younger brother.

Donell Atkins said he still remembers being a high school student, traveling city to city with his sister on her tour bus.

"I spent my summer vacation with her and we went everywhere. We went all over,” Donell Atkins said.

Rosetta and Donell reconnected later in her life.

During the height of her fame, she took the time to learn more about her Arkansas roots.

Rosetta’s niece, Effie McGhee, said she remembers her early years with Rosetta.

"Because of segregation, she wasn't able to stay in the white hotel, and she stayed in a hotel down the street from our house,” McGhee said.

McGhee met Rosetta as a ten-year-old little girl. She recalled seeing her play live in the Jim Crow south, to mixed-race crowds.

"It was just a lot of joy. It made me feel like I was somebody because of her,” McGhee said.

Inside her brother's Northside Milwaukee church, Effie, Pops and TeAnna and listened to one of her songs.

TeAnna has picked up where Effie left off, making sure Sister Rosetta's legacy survives generations in Atkins family lore, as it will in the Rock Hall of Fame.

"It was really an accomplishment to know I was able to give her credit in a way that honors her, from a family perspective but also as an individual,” TeAnna said.

TeAnna wrote an article on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s oft-forgotten legacy and influence. A link to that article can be found here.

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