Gospel singer, songwriter
Rosetta Tharpe was one of the first gospel singers/songwriters to transcend her genre and gain international popularity as a performer. At the height of her popularity, she was one of the best-known performing artists, of any genre, in the world and conducted international tours, which raised the popularity of gospel music to previously unachieved levels. Though Tharpe's career was largely forgotten by the 1980s and 1990s, her guitar playing and singing style influenced a number of popular artists, including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, a small, primarily African-American community. Tharpe's mother, Katie Nubin, was a gospel singer and mandolin player who traveled with the Church of God in Christ Ministry and played for the Holiness Church in Cotton Plant. After divorcing her husband, Nubin raised her daughter with the help of the Pentecostal church community and continued her work as a traveling preacher and musician.
Sang Gospel Blues
Tharpe learned the basics of how to play a piano and mandolin from her mother. She was given her first guitar when she was about four or five years old and soon learned to accompany herself while singing. By age six, Tharpe was accompanying her mother in churches throughout Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia and traveling with the revival tour of evangelist P.W. McGee. While still a child, Tharpe was billed as the "Little Sister," or the "Pint-Sized Guitar-Playing Miracle," and she eventually became known as one of the most popular acts in the touring gospel circuit. In 1920, Tharpe and her family relocated to Chicago, but they continued working with McGee's traveling show and toured the country from 1923 to the early 1930s.
From 1920 to the late 1930s, Tharpe's playing and performance style was largely influenced by classic gospel, her mother's mandolin playing, and the piano playing of Arizona Dranes, a blind pianist who traveled with McGee in the 1930s. In Chicago, Tharpe was exposed to urban blues and jazz, and she soon began to adopt traces of these "new" sounds into her repertoire. By the time she reached adulthood, she had begun to craft a unique method of playing gospel music, with a distinct urban appeal.
Tharpe relocated to New York City in the early 1930s, where she joined the Holiness Church in Harlem and began performing with the church choir. In 1934, she married Thomas J. Thorpe, the pastor of Holiness Church. When the marriage ended, reportedly because Thorpe wanted his wife to cease touring and performing, she kept her husband's name but changed the spelling, thereafter performing as "Sister Rosetta Tharpe."
In 1936, representatives from Decca Records—a British label that opened a U.S. branch in 1934—offered Tharpe a recording contract after watching her perform at a club in New York. Tharpe was the first gospel singer to receive a recording contract with a major recording company. Her first recordings were released in 1938 and met with critical and popular acclaim. Almost immediately, she received offers to perform at major venues and, in December of 1938, she headlined the historic "From Spirituals to Swing" concert held at Carnegie Hall, alongside Benny Goodman and Count Basie.
As Tharpe began performing for larger audiences, she interspersed her traditional gospel songs with secular music and nontraditional versions of spirituals done with jazz and blues overtones. Some of the members in the Pentecostal community were troubled by Tharpe's departure from strict gospel tradition, whereas many in the secular audience were enthusiastic about the new, crossover sound. Tharpe was among the first gospel artists to play at Harlem's internationally famous Cotton Club, where she shared the stage with Cab Calloway. Her first major radio hit—"Rock Me," which was a remake of a gospel spiritual changed into a love song—gained her further criticism from strict Pentecostal audiences but became a national hit and made Tharpe the most popular recording artist in gospel history.
Toured the United States and Europe
The 1940s was the pinnacle of gospel popularity in the United States, and Tharpe was one of the genre's leading women. During the late 1930s, she began transitioning from her finger-picked acoustic guitar to an electric guitar. "When Rosetta Tharpe switched to the electric guitar primarily as a performer … she enjoyed a loud, kind of noisy, dirty sound," said biographer Gayle Wald in a 2007 interview with New York Public Radio. Wald noted that Tharpe's electric guitar was unique in the gospel world and a forerunner of the pop gospel that was popularized in later decades. "She's doing a praise song to god and yet it has this noisy, dirty sound to it."
By the mid-1940s, Tharpe had reached an unprecedented status for a gospel singer. She was one of only two gospel performers asked to record V-disks, which were sent overseas to U.S. soldiers fighting in World War II. During this time, Tharpe was also featured on three short television performances, in which she showcased her ability to perform visually as well as vocally. Tharpe's movements, poses, and guitar-playing style were reminiscent of later artists in the rock-and-roll genre, including Presley, Lewis, and Pete Townshend.
In 1947, Tharpe's record managers decided to make a series of duet records featuring Tharpe and young gospel singer Marie Roach Knight. The duo proved to be more popular than had been expected, and their radio and record singles reached the top of the sales charts. Tharpe and Knight continued performing and touring together off and on for next twenty years. It was during her collaborations with Knight and pianist Samuel Blythe Price that Tharpe reached superstar status, with sold-out concerts across the nation and record sales that outpaced those of any other gospel artist.
Between touring and performing, Tharpe met and married her second husband, gospel booking agent Forrest Allen. By 1950, the couple had divorced, and Tharpe decided to reunite with her mother for a national tour. Tharpe and Nubin recorded a number of songs that were featured on the radio and performed at the Apollo Theater in New York, in the show Spirituals in a Modern Manner.
In 1951, Tharpe married Russell Morrison, a manager and promoter of gospel and rhythm and blues. Tharpe's promotional team decided to couple the wedding with a concert held at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Over twenty thousand people purchased tickets to see the concert/wedding. A recording of the concert was sold following the show.
At a Glance …
Born Rosetta Nubin on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, AR; died on October 9, 1973, in Philadelphia, PA; married Thomas J. Thorpe, 1934 (divorced); married Forrest Allen (divorced); married Russell Morrison, 1951.
Career: P.W. McGee's revival show, performer, 1920-36; Decca Records, recording artist, 1936-38; self-employed musician, songwriter, performer, 1938-73.
In 1952, Tharpe became the first gospel singer to tour Europe, where she stayed for over a year playing concerts at churches and other venues in England, Spain, Germany, and France. She returned to England in 1957 for an extended tour. Her popularity grew rapidly in Europe, where American gospel music was only beginning to spread. Tharpe played to sold-out crowds at most of her appearances and was often hailed in the European media for her ecstatic performances.
Influenced a Variety of Singers
Though Tharpe continued playing spiritual music, her blend of secular gospel was never fully accepted by the Pentecostal community, so she eventually joined a Baptist church. By the mid-1960s, the American popular music scene was changing, and Tharpe's style, while still controversial among the religious community, was no longer at the forefront of American popular music
Tharpe continued touring Europe and the United States during the 1960s and still had the popularity to draw large crowds at major venues. In 1967, she was one of the headlining acts at the Newport Folk Festival, and the following year she was asked to perform at the Paris Jazz Festival. Tharpe was still touring Europe when her mother died in 1969. The following year, Tharpe suffered her first stroke and was hospitalized for several months. Even though her leg was amputated due to complications from her stroke, she recovered sufficiently to make short appearances on tours in 1972 and early 1973. In October of 1973, while she was in Philadelphia preparing to record a new album, she suffered a second and fatal stroke. Tharpe was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia as, for unknown reasons, Morrison was unwilling to purchase a gravestone.
Tharpe's career was largely forgotten for nearly two decades, though her influence on popular music remained strong. Musicians such as Presley, Little Richard, Lewis, and Isaac Hayes cited Tharpe among their influences, and her blues guitar style influenced countless musicians in the 1970s and 1980s blues/rock scene. Wald noted in her biography of Tharpe that country and folk legend Johnny Cash called Tharpe his "favorite artist." In reference to Tharpe's legacy, Wald wrote: "[Tharpe] was a woman before her time in a number of ways: as a woman guitarist, as a Gospel ‘crossover’ star, as an artist willing to follow her own artistic vision. She figured out ways to work a guitar to bring an audience—even a huge, stadium size audience—to its feet."
In the twenty-first century, Tharpe's relevance has been resurrected, and her music continues to influence artists in the gospel, rhythm and blues, and folk genres. In 2003, MC Records released the first Rosetta Tharpe tribute album, Shout, Sistah, Shout, which featured a number of mainstream artists singing renditions of Tharpe's most popular recordings. Tharpe's rise to superstardom, her struggle to remain relevant as a popular artist while maintaining her roots in the religious community, and her bravery and innovation as a musician and a performer highlight issues that remain central to music, artistry, and the evolution of culture.
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Sister Rosetta Tharpe/The Same Price Trio, Decca, 1958.
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In Concert, Nesak, 1995.
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Wald, Gayle F., Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Beacon Press, 2007.
Yanow, Scott, Swing, Miller Freeman Books, 2000.
American Quarterly, Vol. 55, September 2003, pp. 387-416.
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 27, 2007.
Sing Out!, Vol. 47, 2004, p. 47.
Washingtonian, Vol. 42, 2007, p. 45.
"The Gospel of Sister Rosetta Tharpe," All Things Considered,http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1603597 (accessed December 14, 2007).
"Life and Legacy of Rosetta Tharpe," New York Public Radio,http://www.wnyc.org/shows/soundcheck/episodes/2007/06/06 (accessed December 15, 2007).
—Micah L. Issitt
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