Tharpe, "Sister" Rosetta

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Tharpe, "Sister" Rosetta

March 20, 1915
October 9, 1973

The gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. She began her musical apprenticeship playing guitar and singing in the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal church, and she gained professional experience traveling with her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, a missionary. In her teens she followed her mother to Chicago. It is not clear whether she took a new last name as the result of a marriage, but it was as Sister Rosetta Tharpe that she came to prominence in 1938 in New York. At first she was known for performing in secular venues, a controversial practice for a gospel singer. In 1938 she performed at Harlem's Cotton Club with bandleader Cab Calloway and at the famous "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall. Those performances helped her land a contract with Decca Records, making her the first gospel singer to record for a major label. In 1943 she performed at the Apollo Theater, the first time that a major gospel singer had appeared there. Her 1944 rendition of "Strange Things Happen Every Day" was widely popular.

Starting in the 1940s, Tharpe performed in churches, concert halls, nightclubs, on the radio, and later even on television. She gained fame not only because of her practice of playing secular venues, a practice she defended by calling all of her music evangelical, but also because of her jazz and bluesinfluenced guitar playing. Tharpe, who recorded "Daniel in the Lion's Den" in 1949 with her mother, eventually toured with such jazz and blues groups as those led by Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Muddy Waters, Sammy Price, and Lucky Millinder, as well as with gospel groups such as the Caravans, the James Cleveland Singers, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Richmond Harmonizing Four, and the Sally Jenkins Singers, with whom she recorded "I Have Good News to Bring" in 1960. Tharpe, who was the first major gospel singer to tour Europe, was also widely known for her live performances and recordings of "That's All," "I Looked Down the Line," "Up Above My Head," and "This Train." She died in Philadelphia. Tharpe was honored in 1998 by having her image appear on a U.S. postage stamp.

See also Gospel Music; Music in the United States


Broughton, Viv. Black Gospel: An Illustrated History of the Gospel Sound. Poole, Dorset, U.K.: Blandford Press, 1985.

Gilmore, Lea. "Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Original Soul Sister." Sing Out! 47, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 47.

Heilbut, Tony. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1975.

irene v. jackson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005