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Tharpe, Rosetta Nubin

Rosetta Nubin Tharpe

African American singer-guitarist Rosetta Nubin Tharpe (1915–1973) fused gospel and secular music and overcame a stereotype that women could not play guitars to become one of the most influential women in American music history.

The Little Miracle

Rosetta Nubin Tharpe was born on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. After divorcing the child's father, Katie Bell, Tharpe's mother, a missionary and church choir singer, began traveling and preaching the gospel. When she was six, Tharpe, who had already learned how to play guitar, held her first public performance at a local church, singing "Jesus on the Main Line, Tell Him What You Want." She was so tiny that she had to be "hoisted atop a piano so congregants could get a view of Little Sister Nubin, the 'singing and guitar-playing miracle,"' noted Gayle Wald in American Quarterly.

In the late 1920s, Tharpe and her mother moved to Illinois. In Chicago, jazz, not gospel, was the most popular music. Visiting clubs, Tharpe listened and learned from such legendary musicians as King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Gospel music was her first love, yet she found the church's restrictions on playing other types of music foolish. Lea Gilmore in Sing Out described Tharpe's struggle as a "fight with the devil. In the sanctified church, blues and jazz were viewed as the 'devil's music.' No good 'saint' would be seen playing or listening to such." Feeling that secular music like jazz and blues was not "devil's music," Tharpe remained in the church and continued singing gospel. She married a pastor, Pastor Thorpe, whom she later divorced. She changed one letter of his last name and adopted it as her stage name.

Crossed Over to Stardom

By the late 1930s, Tharpe had moved to New York, played in the famous Cotton Club, recorded her first records, and performed at Carnegie Hall. Yet, as she became an entertainment star, the public, especially African Americans, seemed unready for a singer who crossed over from gospel to secular music and back again. "The world offered nothing but sin," Gilmore further explained, "… and the church, at least, offered salvation and an assurance that even though life down here may be hard as hell, the next life is where we will reap the spiritual fruit we have sowed."

Yet Tharpe refused to be held back by conventional thinking. She wanted to play all types of music, even if some believed she was making a "mockery of religion," as Darlene Clark Hine commented in Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in American Music. In fact, her first popular single, "Rock Me," was a remake of the gospel song "Hide me Thou Bossom," thus "blurring the boundaries between church and night club, Sunday morning and Monday night," noted Wald.

In Tharpe's version, "Rock Me" became not a request for the comforting hand of God, but a cry for the pleasure of a lover's touch. Backed by Lucius "Lucky" Millinder's jazz orchestra, Tharpe "produced a sound that calls forth the spirit even as it calls to mind the pleasures of the flesh," further noted Wald. Once again, many religious believers were upset at her music.

Returned to Gospel

By the 1940s, singers began to appear in "soundies," three-to-four minute performance films. These early music videos put a face to the voice while creating a singer's image. When audiences saw Tharpe in her soundie, "Lonesome Road," they viewed an elegant woman, neatly dressed and primped, singing about the hardships of life as she travels. Although she may have looked understated and restrained, Tharpe's movements suggested otherwise. "Her body language … reads like an amalgamation of the Holiness church and Hollywood," commented Wald. Using theatrical gestures like big smiles to play to the camera and to an imaginary audience, Tharpe suggested that being a strong woman who was unafraid of criticism was as important as being a good church congregant.

However, by the late 1940s, perhaps weary of the never-ending criticism as well as her own internal struggle to keep her gospel foundation, Tharpe returned to her roots and started again performing gospel music. But she still played in jazz clubs and theaters and even rearranged chords to put a little rock and roll into her hymns.

In 1947, her recording label, Decca, paired Tharpe with a new teenage singing sensation, Marie Roach Knight. Their duets skyrocketed both Tharpe and Knight into super-stardom. One such outstanding duet, "Up Above My Head," capitalized on their complementary voices. Yet, as Knight recalled to Gilmore in Sing Out!, "We rarely had rehearsals, because we never did the music the same way. We would trade lead vocals.… You cannot do this without the anointing of God."

In 1950, Tharpe and her mother also formed a successful duo. While appearing at the Harlem Apollo, the two presented "Spirituals in the Modern Manner." Even though Tharpe had returned to the church's fold, she could not resist a jab at its narrow viewpoint. As Howard Rye told American National Biography Online, just before beginning one song Tharpe mentioned to the audience, "God is as likely to be found at the Apollo as anywhere else; he doesn't stay at church all the time."

Influenced "The King"

By the 1950s and 1960s, listeners had begun to tune out Tharpe in favor of rock and roll legends such as Led Zepplin, the Rolling Stones, and the Who. However, Tharpe found new fans as she toured Europe, most notably with the American Folk, Blues and Gospel Caravan tour in the United Kingdom. One fan, Phil Watson, recalled to Gilmore in Sing Out!, "Her guitar playing was a revelation. The electric guitar was highly polished and she used it as mirror to flash lights around the audience." While on tour in 1970, Tharpe suffered a stroke. She never recovered enough strength to perform again and died on October 9, 1973, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Tharpe's legacy is her lasting influence on music's most popular performers. Elvis Information Network writer Nigel Patterson connected Tharpe's influence to Elvis Presley. Both had drawn criticism for "putting too much motion as well as emotion" into their songs. And their images caused controversy—Tharpe commanded the stage with her "brightly dyed flame-red hair and her guitar slung over her shoulder" while Elvis adopted a similar stance and his famous swiveling pelvis. Yet, the most obvious connection between Tharpe and Elvis was their unflinching dedication to playing all types of music. Both "were musical innovators," Patterson wrote, "who combined diverse musical genres to form a hybrid sound."

A connection can also be made between Tharpe and another performer—Madonna. Both were big on spectacle, on drawing audiences in with their offstage actions. In 1951, much like Madonna's ill-fated and widely publicized wedding to actor Sean Penn, Tharpe married record producer Russell Morrison at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. The wedding was billed, as Gilmore stated in Sing Out!, "the wedding of the century." Photographs were published in Ebony magazine, admission was charged to attend the ceremony, and a gospel concert was held after the exchange of vows.

Although still unfamiliar to most audiences, Tharpe was the Beatles, the Madonna, the In Sync, the Eminem, the 50 Cent of her time. A superstar who never forgot her roots but pushed music past the stigmas of crossover boundaries, Tharpe's "light," as Gilmore further stated in Sing Out!, "transcended genre and left a trail of stardust across the musical landscape."

Books

Hine, Darlene Clark, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Music, 1997.

Periodicals

American Quarterly, 2003.

Sing Out!, Winter 2004.

Online

"How Sister Rosetta Tharpe Influenced Elvis," Elvis Information Network,http://www.elvis.com/au/en/printer_spotlight_tharpe.shtml (December 28, 2003).

"It's A Girl Thang! Rosetta Tharpe," BluesLand.net,http://bluesland.net/thang/tharpe.html (December 26, 2003).

"Tharpe, Sister Rosetta," American National Biographyhttp://www.anb.org/articles/18/18-03400.html (December 31, 2003).

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