Sister Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 - October 9, 1973) was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist. A pioneer of twentieth-century music, Tharpe attained great popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings that were a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic/early rock accompaniment. She became gospel music's first crossover artist and its first great recording star, referred to later as "the original soul sister". She was an early influence on figures such as Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Willing to cross the line between sacred and secular by performing her music of "light" in the "darkness" of the nightclubs and concert halls with big bands behind her, Tharpe pushed spiritual music into the mainstream and helped pioneer the rise of pop-gospel beginning with her 1939 hit "This Train". Her unique music left a lasting mark on more conventional gospel artists such as Ira Tucker, Sr. of the Dixie Hummingbirds. While she offended some conservative churchgoers with her forays into the pop world, she never left gospel music.
Tharpe's 1944 hit "Down By The Riverside" was selected for the American Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2004, with the citation stating that it captured her "spirited guitar playing" and "unique vocal style", which were an influence on early rhythm and blues performers, as well as gospel, jazz, and rock artists. ("Down By The Riverside" was actually recorded by Tharpe on December 2, 1948, in New York City, and issued as Decca single #48106.) Her 1945 hit "Strange Things Happening Every Day", recorded in late 1944, featured Tharpe's vocals and electric guitar, with Sammy Price (piano), bass and drums. It was the first gospel record to cross over, hitting no. 2 on the Billboard "race records" chart, the term then used for what later became the R&B chart, in April 1945. The recording has been cited as an important precursor of rock and roll. Tharpe has been called the Godmother of Rock n' Roll.
Childhood and early career:
She was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, United States, to parents Katie Bell Nubin and Willis Atkins, who were cotton pickers. Little is known of her father, although it is known that he was a singer. Tharpe's mother, Katie Bell Nubin, was a singer, mandolin player, evangelist and preacher for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), which was founded by a black Baptist bishop named Charles Mason in 1894, who encouraged rhythmic musical expression, dancing in praise and allowing women to preach in church. With the encouragement of her mother, Tharpe began singing and playing the guitar as 'Little Rosetta Nubin' from the age of four and was cited as a musical prodigy.
By age six, Tharpe had joined her mother as a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe. Billed as a "singing and guitar playing miracle," Tharpe accompanied her mother in hybrid performances--part sermon, part gospel concert--before audiences all across the American South.
In the mid-1920s, Tharpe and her mother settled in Chicago, Illinois, where the duo continued to perform religious concerts at the COGIC church on 40th Street while occasionally traveling to perform at church conventions throughout the country. As a result, Tharpe developed considerable fame as a musical prodigy, standing out in an era when prominent black female guitarists remained very rare. In 1934, at the age of 19, Rosetta Tharpe married a COGIC preacher named Thomas Thorpe, who had accompanied her and her mother on many of their tours. Although the marriage only lasted a short time, she decided to incorporate a version of her first husband's surname into her stage name, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, which she would use for the rest of her career. In 1938, Tharpe left her husband, and with her mother, moved to New York City. Although she had more than one marriage, she performed under the name of Tharpe for the rest of her life.
On October 31, 1938, at age 23, Tharpe recorded for the first time - four sides with Decca Records backed by "Lucky" Millinder's jazz orchestra. The first gospel songs ever recorded by Decca, "Rock Me," "That's All," "My Man and I" and "The Lonesome Road" became instant hits, establishing Tharpe as an overnight sensation and one of the first commercially successful gospel recording artists. She had signed a seven-year contract with Reminder and was managed by Mo Galye. Her records caused an immediate furor: many churchgoers were shocked by the mixture of gospel-based lyrics and secular-sounding music, but secular audiences loved them.
Tharpe's appearances with jazz artist Cab Calloway at Harlem's Cotton Club in October 1938 and in John Hammond's "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938, gained her even more fame, along with notoriety. These performances, which both shocked and awed the crowds, were controversial as well as revolutionary in several respects. Performing gospel music in front of secular, 'nightclub' audiences and alongside blues, jazz musicians and dancers was highly unusual, and within conservative religious circles the mere fact of a woman performing guitar music, particularly in those settings, was frowned upon. For these reasons, Tharpe was often falling out of favour with segments within the gospel community. Other late 1930s hits, such as her self-penned "This Train" and "Rock Me", which combined gospel themes with bouncy up-tempo arrangements, continued to become hits among audiences with little previous exposure to gospel music.
It has been suggested Tharpe had little choice in the material she was contracted to record with Millinder. "Rosetta and Millinder were increasingly at odds in 1943, as Rosetta itched to quit the big-band circuit and renew her career as a strictly gospel act. As Roxie Moore remembers, she hadn't wanted to do light fare poking fun at old-time religion or worldly material like Tall Skinny Papa, but found herself bound by contractual obligations." Her nightclub performances initially led to her being ostracised by some in the gospel community, as she would sometimes be required to sing her gospel songs amid scantily clad showgirls. She played on a number of occasions with the white singing group The Jordanaires.
Tharpe continued recording during World War II, one of only two gospel artists able to record V-discs for troops overseas. Her song "Strange Things Happening Every Day", recorded in 1944 with Sammy Price, Decca's house boogie woogie pianist, showcased her virtuosity as a guitarist and her witty lyrics and delivery. It was the first gospel song to make Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade (later known as Race Records, then R&B) Top Ten. This achievement was something that Sister Rosetta Tharpe accomplished several more times in her career. This 1944 record has been credited by some as being the "First rock and roll record". Tharpe toured throughout the 1940s, backed by various gospel quartets, including The Dixie Hummingbirds.
In 1946 Tharpe saw Marie Knight perform at a Mahalia Jackson concert in New York. Tharpe recognized a special talent in Knight. Two weeks later, Tharpe showed up at Knight's doorstep, inviting her to go on the road. They toured the gospel circuit for a number of years, during which they recorded hits such as "Up Above My Head" and "Gospel Train". Tharpe was so popular that she attracted 25,000 paying customers to her wedding to her manager Russell Morrison (her third marriage), followed by a vocal performance, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in 1951.
Their popularity took a sudden downturn, however, when they recorded several blues songs in the early 1950s. Knight attempted afterward to cross over to popular music, while Tharpe remained in the church, but rebuffed by many of her former fans. In 1957, Tharpe was booked for a month-long tour of the UK by British trombonist Chris Barber.
In April - May 1964, at the height of a surge of popular interest in the blues, she toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan, alongside Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, Ransom Knowling and Little Willie Smith, Reverend Gary Davis, Cousin Joe, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Tharpe was introduced on stage and accompanied on piano by Cousin Joe Pleasant. Under the auspices of George Wein, the Caravan was stage-managed by Joe Boyd. A concert, in the rain, was recorded by Granada Television at the disused railway station at Wilbraham Road, Manchester in May 1964. The band performed on one platform while the audience members were seated on the opposite platform.
Later life and death:
Tharpe's performances were curtailed by a stroke in 1970, after which she had a leg amputated as a result of complications from diabetes. On the eve of a scheduled recording session, she died in Philadelphia on October 9, 1973 after another stroke. She was buried in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
A resurgence of interest in Tharpe's work has led to a biography, several NPR segments, scholarly articles, and honors. The United States Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp to honor Tharpe on July 15, 1998. In 2007, she was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2008, a concert was held to raise funds for a marker for her grave, and January 11 was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania. A gravestone was put in place later that year, and a Pennsylvania historical marker was approved for placement at her home in the Yorktown neighborhood of Philadelphia. The PBS series American Masters featured her story in the opening program of their 2013 season.BBC Four aired an hour-long documentary by Mick Csáky, The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, on March 20, 2015.
Musically, Tharpe's unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll.
Little Richard referred to the stomping, shouting, gospel music performer as his favorite singer when he was a child. In 1945, she heard Richard sing prior to her concert at the Macon City Auditorium and later invited him on stage to sing, his first public performance outside of the church, with her. Following the show, she paid him for his performance, which inspired him to become a performer. When Johnny Cash gave his induction speech at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, he referred to Tharpe as his favorite singer when he was a child. His daughter Rosanne similarly stated in an interview with Larry King that Tharpe was her father's favorite singer. Tharpe began recording with electric guitar in the 1940s, with "That's All", which is cited to have been an influence on Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. A number of other musicians, including Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Isaac Hayes have identified her singing, guitar playing, and showmanship as an important influence on them. She was held in particularly high esteem by UK jazz/blues singer George Melly. Tina Turner credits Rosetta Tharpe besides Mahalia Jackson as an early musical influence on her. Even today, artists such as Sean Michel have credited her influence with the performance of gospel songs in more secular venues.
Brixton band Alabama 3 named a track after Sister Rosetta on their debut album Exile on Coldharbour Lane (1997), as well as recording a version of her song "Up Above My Head". In 2007, UK indie rock band The Noisettes released the single "Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit)" from their album What's the Time Mr. Wolf? Also in 2007, singers Alison Krauss and Robert Plant recorded a duet version of the song "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us", written by Sam Phillips. Phillips released her version of the song on her 2008 album, Don't Do Anything. Michelle Shocked opened her live gospel album ToHeavenURide (2007) with "Strange Things Happening Every Day", along with a tribute to Tharpe.
In 2001, the French film Amélie included a scene showing the protagonist's house-bound neighbor mesmerized by a montage of video clips which featured a performance of "Up Above My Head" by Tharpe.
In 2014 the Canadian film Felix et Meara included about one minute of Tharpe singing "Didn't it Rain" from the video of Tharpe's 1964 concert at the Wilbraham Road railway station.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license