Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Biography

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a fiery Gospel singer and played electric guitar with a technique that helped lay the foundation for rock and roll. Her groundbreaking work is mostly available on compilations, but she never made a bad record and they’re all well worth searching out if you have any interest in the history of rock guitar. The Gospel of the Blues (2003 MCA) includes her early hits from 1938 through 1947 with Lucky Millinder and Marie Knight. England’s Document label has compiled her early recordings on three CDs with Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1: 1938-1941 (1996), Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2: 1942-1944 (1996), and Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 3: 1946-1947 (1996). Also worth finding is Spirituals in Rhythm (2004 Collector’s Choice) and Gospel Train (2002 Uni), the remastering of a Mercury Records session from 1956. Later recordings are collected on Precious Memories (1998 Savoy).


Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas sometime between 1915 and 1921. She grew up singing in church with her mother Katie Bell Nubin, a traveling evangelist. She was playing the guitar at the age of six, influenced by her mother’s mandolin style. Rosetta was a fine singer, but even in her teen years her guitar playing was extraordinary, featuring lead lines and improvisations on the melodies of the hymns her mother sang. The family moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, where Rosetta  played jazz and blues for her friends and family. Rosetta left for New York in 1934 and married Reverend Thomas Thorpe just long enough to adapt his last name, Thorpe, to her stage name, Tharpe. Rosetta was controversial in church circles for her flamboyant dress, bluesy vocal style, and inability to stand still while performing — all qualities that made her a natural crossover artist. Her mix of secular and sacred styles refigured the rise of soul music some 30 years later.


In 1938, Tharpe was playing the Cotton Club with Cab Calloway and soon got signed by Decca Records. On her first singles, Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Rock Me” and the traditional spiritual “This Train,” she was backed by Lucky Millinder’s Jazz Orchestra. The songs were huge hits and Tharpe became one of the first Black Gospel artists to become popular with white audiences in a still-segregated America. She recorded Gospel music but appeared on stage with secular artists like Benny Goodman and participated in the groundbreaking From Spirituals to Swing concert staged by John Hammond in 1938 with pianist Albert Ammons. She did a few secular sides with Cab Calloway and Lucky Millinder, but soon returned to sacred material. During World War II, she recorded for the government’s V-disc project. Her soulful, consecrated singing prefigured the later success of Aretha Franklin, and Tharpe often punctuated the last word of a line with a soulful falsetto howl, a technique later borrowed by Little Richard. Johnny Cash also cites her as an influence and his favorite singer. Her guitar playing combined country, Gospel, jazz, and blues licks. It is a style that Chuck Berry later adapted and is a debt he often acknowledged, according to Marie Knight, Tharpe’s backing vocalist for 25 years.


In 1944, Tharpe collaborated with boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price on a series of jazzy, bluesy Gospel recordings. The song “Strange Things Happening Every Day” even got onto the Race Charts, an unusual feat for a Gospel artist. In 1946, Marie Knight became Tharpe’s backup singer. Their first single, “Up Above My Head,” was another huge hit. Tharpe and Knight remained popular into the 1950s. Tharpe’s third marriage in 1951 to her manager Russell Morrison took place during a Washington, DC concert that drew 25,000 fans. In the 1950s, Tharpe made some straightforward secular recordings, which didn’t fare well and alienated her core audience. It took a while for her to come back and she spent the early ‘60s touring Europe, possibly the first Gospel star ever to do so. The folk revivalists discovered Tharpe in the ’60s, embracing her shouting vocal style and reverb-heavy guitar playing. Although she was no longer a superstar, she continued touring into the early ‘70s. She lost a leg due to diabetes, but was up and touring again in less than a year. She remained active until she died on October 9, 1973, just before a recording session.







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