Rosetta Nubin Tharpe was one of gospel music’s first superstars, the first gospel performer to record for a major record label, and an early crossover artist from gospel to secular music. Tharpe has been cited as an influence by countless musicians, including Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash.. She is credited with bringing gospel music into the mainstream in the 1930s and 1940s. She toured until her death in 1973.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Although the identity of her father is unknown, Tharpe's mother, Katie Bell Nubin, was a singer, mandolin player and evangelist preacher for the Church of God in Christ. The church encouraged musical expression in worship and allowed women to preach. With the support of her mother, Tharpe began singing and playing the guitar from a very young age. She could sing and keep on pitch and hold a melody – unusual for someone so young - and on guitar she played individual notes, melodies, and riffs instead of just strumming chords.
Tharpe began performing onstage with her mother from the age of four, playing the guitar and singing "Jesus Is on the Main Line." By age six, she had joined her mother as a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe. Billed as a "singing and guitar playing miracle," Tharpe accompanied her mother in sermons and performances in front of audiences all across the American South.
In the mid-1920's, Tharpe and her mother settled in Chicago, Illinois, where the duo continued to perform religious concerts in a church on 40th Street while occasionally traveling to perform at churches throughout the country. As a result, Tharpe developed considerable fame as a musical prodigy, standing out in an era when prominent black female guitarists remained very rare; blues legend Memphis Minnie was the only such performer to enjoy national fame at the time.
In 1934, at the age of 19, Rosetta Tharpe married a preacher named Thomas Thorpe, who had accompanied her and her mother on many of their tours. Although the marriage only lasted a short time, she decided to incorporate a version of her first husband's surname into her stage name, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, which she would use for the rest of her career.
In 1938, Tharpe moved to New York City, where she signed with Decca Records. On October 31 of that year, she recorded four songs for Decca: "Rock Me," "That's All," "The Man and I" and "The Lonesome Road." The first gospel songs ever recorded for Decca, all four of these recordings became instant hits, establishing Tharpe as one of the nation's first commercially successful gospel singer.
Then, on December 23, 1938, Tharpe performed in John Hammond's famous Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall. Her performance was controversial and revolutionary in several respects. Performing gospel music in front of secular audiences and alongside blues and jazz musicians was highly unusual, and within conservative religious circles the mere fact of a woman performing guitar music was frowned upon. Musically, Tharpe's unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a syncopated swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll. The performance awed the Carnegie Hall audience. Later Tharpe gained even more notoriety by performing regularly with jazz legend Cab Calloway at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem.
During the early 1940s, Tharpe continued to fuse the worlds of religious gospel music with more secular sounds, producing music that defied easy classification. Accompanied by Lucky Millinder's orchestra, she recorded such secular hits as "Shout Sister Shout," "That's All" and "I Want a Tall Skinny Papa." "That's All" was the first record on which Tharpe played the electric guitar; a sound that would have an influence on such later players as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
Tharpe kept up a grueling tour schedule, performing her gospel music in churches as well as playing secular clubs. One highlight was a weeklong stint on stage at New York's famous Café Society before racially mixed crowds. Tharpe's considerable crossover appeal was demonstrated during World War II when she became one of only two African American gospel artists to be asked to record "V-Discs" (the "V" stood for "victory") for American troops overseas.
In the mid-1940s, Tharpe scored another musical breakthrough by teaming up with blues pianist Sammy Price to record music featuring an unprecedented combination of piano, guitar, and gospel singing. The duo's two most famous tracks, recorded in 1944, were "Strange Things Happening Every Day" and "Two Little Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread." However, in the face of intense criticism from the religious community, who viewed her jazzy collaborations with Price as the devil's music, Tharpe returned to recording more Christian music later in the 1940s. In 1947, she formed a duet with fellow gospel singer Marie Knight to record such spiritual traditional gospel songs as "Oh When I Come to the End of My Journey," "Stretch Out" and "Up Above My Head" ("I Hear Music in the Air").
Tharpe married again in July of 1951.The ceremony at a stadium in Washington, D.C., attended by some 25,000 paying audience members, featured a gospel performance by Tharpe in her wedding dress and finished with a massive fireworks display.
In 1953, Tharpe and Knight deviated from the gospel genre to record a secular blues album. The experiment proved disastrous. Not only was the album a commercial failure, it also earned both artists widespread condemnation from the religious community that had provided their most loyal fan base. Tharpe and Knight parted ways shortly after the album's release and neither ever recovered her previous popularity. Tharpe spent the remaining two decades of her career touring Europe and the United States, primarily playing gospel music.
Though she had a much lower profile during these years, Tharpe enjoyed several late-career highlights, including an acclaimed 1960 performance with James Cleveland at the Apollo in Harlem and a 1967 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival.
While on a European blues tour with Muddy Waters in 1970, Tharpe suddenly fell ill and returned to the United States. She suffered a stroke shortly after her return and, due to complications from diabetes, had to have a leg amputated. Despite her health woes, Tharpe continued to perform regularly for several more years. In October 1973, however, she suffered a second stroke and passed away days later, on October 9, 1973, at the age of 58, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
One of the most celebrated musicians of all time, Sister Rosetta Tharpe enjoyed a celebrity in the 1940s rarely attained by gospel musicians before or since.
Ira Tucker Jr., the son of the legendary gospel singer Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds, put it simply: "She was a rock star."
More than just popular, Tharpe was also groundbreaking, profoundly impacting American music history by pioneering the guitar technique that would eventually evolve into the rock and roll style played by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Eric Clapton. However, despite her great popularity and influence on music history, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was first and foremost a gospel musician who shared her spirituality with all those who listened to her music. Her epitaph reads, "She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing."