Tharpe, Rosetta (1915–1973)

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Tharpe, Rosetta (1915–1973)

American singer and guitarist whose music anticipated Chuck Berry and other rockers. Name variations: Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Born Rosetta Nubin on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas; died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, of a stroke on October 9, 1973; daughter of Kate Bell Nubin (a traveling gospelbringer and old time shouter); married a pastor named Thorpe in 1934 (kept his name but changed the spelling); married Forrest Allen, 1940s; married Russell Morrison, in 1951.

Selected discography:

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gospel, Blues, Jazz; Brighten the Corner Where You Are: Black and White Urban Hymnody; Gospel Train; Soul Sister; Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Rosetta Tharpe grew up in the heart of gospel, the musical genre which spawned blues and rock. Her mother was Kate Bell Nubin a "traveling gospel-bringer, old-time shouter, pianist, and mandolinist," and Rosetta was raised in the Holiness Church where she learned how to make memorable music. Known as "Little Sister," she was only a child when she debuted in Chicago with her mother, singing "I Looked Down the Line and I Wondered" to a crowd of 1,000. At six, she began her professional touring career, singing most often to her own guitar playing and from time to time with her mother's accompaniment, traveling on the tent-meeting circuit with an evangelist. In Tharpe, the Holiness Church found a sanctified singer whose reputation developed widely during gospel music's early years. In addition to her mother's example, she was influenced by the blind pianist Arizona Dranes. Among her repertoire were Lucie Campbell and W.H. Brewster's gospel hymns as well as Thomas Andrew Dorsey's blues-touched gospels.

In 1934, Tharpe married a pastor named Thorpe in what was to be the first of three marriages (she would keep his name but alter the spelling to Tharpe). She came to national attention in 1938–39. That year, as the first gospel singer to sign with a major recording company, she contracted with Decca Records. "Rock Me," which was recorded with Lucky Millender, became a hit record, and Tharpe was the subject of a Life magazine feature. Her recordings document that Tharpe's guitar playing was years ahead of its time, a sound everyone in America would soon emulate. In addition to performing with the Cab Calloway Revue and appearing at the chic Café Society, Tharpe unleashed her talent in Carnegie Hall during the historic "Spirituals to Swing" concert (1938). As gospel became what Ellistine P. Holly notes as "the most important black music since early jazz" during the 1940s, Tharpe's hits popularized the gospel music to a wider audience, and in the following decade she was one among a handful of gospel prima donnas—including Mahalia Jackson, Willie Mae Ford Smith, Sallie Martin , and Roberta Martin —who spread the sound to the country.

In 1951, Tharpe married her third husband Russell Morrison, ex-manager of the Inkspots, at an outdoor ceremony with 25,000 paying guests. She took her music to Europe during the early 1950s (becoming the first gospel singer to engage in extensive European travel), toured England (1957), appeared at the Antibes Festival (1960), and performed at the Paris Jazz Festival (1968). At home, she lit the stage of New York's

Apollo Theater (1960s) and the Newport Jazz Festival, and she received Grammy nominations.

Tharpe differed from most other gospels singers in what Holly has called her "flamboyant stage presence…. Even during the late sixties she would appear in her red-orange wig, blue jeans, high heels, and an elaborate feather boa." Her more secular style—begun as early as the 1930s—also set Tharpe apart from her gospel contemporaries. Notes Anthony Heilbut: "She could pick blues guitar like a Memphis Minnie [Lizzie Douglas ]. Her song style was filled with blues/inversion, and a resonating vibrato. She bent her notes like a horn player, and syncopated in swing band manner. And, starting in 1938, she scored as no gospel singer has done since."

As the first singer to bring gospel music to the secular stage, Tharpe popularized gospel at the expense of becoming what Heilbut called " persona non grata in the Sanctified church." This status endured, and Tharpe became a member of the Baptist Church in her later life. Her last years saw the deaths of her mother (1969) and her friend Mahalia Jackson (1972). While on tour in Europe during 1970, Tharpe had a stroke, and complications resulted in the amputation of her leg. She performed as late as early 1973 and died later that year following a second stroke. Tharpe's rise to prominence had gone hand in hand with the rise of gospel music.


Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. 2 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1986.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.