Born Rosetta Nubin on March 20, 1915 (some sources say 1921), in Cotton Plant, AR; died on October 9, 1973, in Philadelphia, PA; married Thomas J. Thorpe (divorced); married Forrest Allen (divorced); married Russell Morrison, 1951.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an American gospel music pioneer with a long list of firsts in the genre. Most notably she was the first gospel artist to achieve mainstream popularity. She was a singer and guitarist whose powerful and unique musicianship and charismatic stage presence have continued to inspire contemporary musicians, both religious and secular.

Jason Ankeny wrote in All Music Guide, "Sister Rosetta Tharpe is widely acclaimed among the greatest Sanctified gospel singers of her generation." Ankeny added that as a "flamboyant performer whose music often flirted with the blues and swing, she was also one of the most controversial talents of her day, shocking purists with her leap into the secular market--by playing nightclubs and theatres, she not only pushed spiritual music into the mainstream, but in the process also helped pioneer the rise of pop-gospel."

Born Rosetta Nubin in either 1915 or 1921--sources differ on her birth year and she perpetually dodged the question--Tharpe was the daughter of a traveling missionary for the Church of God in Christ, who was known as "Mother Bell." Katie Bell Nubin sang and played mandolin, and her daughter often accompanied her. Tharpe was a guitar prodigy who began playing publicly at the age of six, and was known as "Little Sister Nubin." The family relocated to Chicago in 1920.

Born to Praise the Lord

Tharpe performed at various Holiness gatherings and toured extensively between 1923 and 1934 with her mother, as part of the Rev. F.W. McGee's itinerant revival group. Tharpe was profoundly influenced by another musician in this group: Arizona Dranes, a blind pianist who was well known for her rousing performances. Tharpe also counted her mother as a formidable musical influence.

She moved to Harlem in the mid-1930s, where she affiliated with another church and married its pastor, Thomas J. Thorpe, a leader in the Holiness Church. Her husband reportedly could not accept Tharpe's desire to perform, and the marriage did not last. When the marriage ended she kept his name, but changed its spelling to "Tharpe."

Tony Heilbut, in his book The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, wrote that Tharpe "could pick blues guitar like a Memphis Minnie." He added that "her song style was filled with blues inversions, and a resonating vibrato. She bent her notes like a horn player, and syncopated in swing band manner. Above all, she had showmanship. ... And, starting in 1938, she triumphed as no gospel singer has done since."

Began Successful Recording Career

Tharpe signed with the Decca label in 1938. Her first records--including "Rock Me," which she recorded with Lucius "Lucky" Millinder's big band, and "This Train"--were instant hits. She frequently rearranged traditional spirituals such as "Didn't It Rain" and "Down by the Riverside." Tharpe found popularity among mainstream audiences and performed on bills with artists such as Cab Calloway, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Benny Goodman. She performed in such legendary New York City venues as the Cotton Club in Harlem and at New York City's Carnegie Hall. "She led an almost schizophrenic existence, remaining in the good graces of her core audience by recording material like 'Precious Lord,' 'Beams of Heaven' and 'End of My Journey' while also appealing to her growing white audience by performing rearranged, uptempo spirituals," wrote Ankeny. "There's something about the gospel blues that's so deep the world can't stand it," Tharpe told Heilbut, as reported in The Gospel Sound.

Despite her training in religious music, which clearly favored singing for the Lord rather than for the world, Tharpe also embraced bits and pieces of secular society. She "sang in clubs and theatres, broadcast the dangers of venereal disease, invented pop gospel, became a household name and ... everybody's sister," according to Heilbut. She performed during a unique musical era. When the electric guitar came to prominence, she took up the instrument, although she also played piano. "She figured out ways to work a guitar to bring an audience---even a huge, stadium size audience--to its feet," said Gayle Wald in Sing Out!. "She was extraordinarily brave in the manner of Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday--women who also had to confront social disapprobation for their social/musical choices." Tharpe also dressed more like an entertainer than an evangelizing missionary. She typically dyed her hair or wore vivid wigs, and wore feathered boas and finery with her gowns that "smack of rent parties and honky-tonks," observed Heilbut.

Part of Gospel's Glory Days

The 1940s were considered a "golden era" for gospel. Tharpe's popularity was such that during World War II she and the Golden Gate Quartet were the only black gospel groups to record V-Discs, recordings sent to American soldiers overseas. She continued to record for Decca and formed a collaborative relationship with Samuel "Sammy" Price, who was the label's staff pianist and arranger. They would work together until 1951. She also married Forrest Allen, a gospel booking agent, at some point during this decade.

Tharpe continued to pursue her eclectic career, touring with the Dixie Hummingbirds, a popular gospel group, and recording with Sammy Price. Their record "Strange Things Happening Every Day" appeared in Billboard magazine's Top Ten list for "race records." Ankeny described this as "a rare feat for a gospel act and one which she repeated several more times during the course of her career," including a 1946 recording of "Up Above My Head" with Madame Marie Knight, another gospel singer who had sung with Mahalia Jackson and was also Tharpe's backup vocalist.

"We traveled all through the deep South together, for 25 years, playing to white and black audiences, strictly segregated," said Knight, in an interview with Paste. "I remember many times working with the sheriff at the front door of the church, with the whites on one side and the blacks on the other. The [police] came because they said they didn't want a riot. I don't know where they got the idea from--I've never heard of a riot at a gospel concert--but they wanted to make sure there was peace and order."

Tharpe was married a third time, to Russell Morrison, the former manager of The Ink Spots, in an elaborate ceremony in Washington D.C. in 1951. Guests paid to attend, and the event, which featured a gospel concert after the vows, was also recorded and issued on vinyl. Gayle Wald in American Quarterly pronounced the event a failure "as both a wedding and a concert. Indeed, it offended precisely to the degree that it was both and neither at the same time." This was purportedly Tharpe's most successful marriage. But it was the end of her working relationship with Knight, who felt snubbed when not asked to perform at the wedding, although she was a member of the wedding party.

Tharpe embarked on extensive touring during the next several years. It took her to churches throughout the United States and then to Europe in the 1950s. She was the first gospel performer to tour Europe, where she remained for nearly a year. As Lynell George observed in the Los Angeles Times, "As an African-American, she was crossing color lines. As a woman, she was going places and performing in a fashion that had previously been unheard of--not to mention making mockery of the term 'ladylike.' Tharpe ... was a sanctified gospel singer who ladled up big servings of the blues and sang and raised many an eyebrow doing so."

Embraced the Blues

In the early 1950s Tharpe decided to record several tracks of straight blues numbers. This outraged her gospel fans and, according to Ankeny, "her credibility and popularity were seriously damaged. Not only did her record sales drop off and her live engagements become fewer and farther between, but many purists took Tharpe's foray into the mainstream as a personal affront; the situation did not improve, and she spent over a year touring clubs in Europe, waiting for the controversy to die down." At the same time, Tharpe was leaving a deep impression on young musicians, her style cutting across color lines and musical genres. These included Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Sleepy LaBeef, and B.B. King.

The situation had improved by 1960, and Tharpe appeared in a prominent all-gospel concert at the legendary Apollo Theatre on a bill with the Caravans and James Cleveland. "By now her voice had lowered an octave, and she chanted more than she sang," wrote Heilbut. "It made no difference." She continued to tour, and performed at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in 1967.

Despite this seeming reversal of professional fortunes, the last years of Tharpe's life were personally difficult. Her mother died in 1969 while Tharpe was touring Europe. In 1970, Tharpe suffered a stroke but continued to tour. Complications from the stroke resulted in the amputation of a leg, but she continued to tour through early 1973. Mahalia Jackson, the gospel legend and a personal friend, died in 1972. Tharpe then had a stroke just prior to a planned recording session, and died on October 9, 1973, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Beginning in the late 1990s, it seemed there was a resurgent interest in Tharpe and her music. She was often cited by contemporary blues musicians, particularly Maria Muldaur, as a formidable influence. Record labels seized upon this interest, spurring a spate of reissues and tribute recordings such as Shout, Sister, Shout, produced in part by Muldaur and released in 2002. A clip from one of her performances also appeared in Amélie, an internationally popular French film. Her achievements were remarkable. As pointed out in Notable Black American Women, Tharpe was "the first nationally known gospel singer; first gospel singer to record with a major company ... first to go public with gospel by performing on the secular stage; and first to perform gospel in a theatre."

by Linda Dailey Paulson

Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Career

Toured extensively with mother, 1923-34; signed recording contract with Decca, 1938; recorded V-Discs, c. 1940; "Up Above My Head" became hit, 1941; recorded blues numbers, 1950s; part of major all-gospel concert, 1960; performed at Newport Folk Festival, 1967.

Famous Works

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 8 years ago

When I was about 13 years old, a gospel singer in Jacksonville, FL, Rosetta was seeking someone to accompany her - sing with her. She did a concert in the city, the producer brought her to my home for an audition and she loved my voice; she was convinced that having a 13 year old singing with her would be a real selling card! She and the producer stayed at my home until (acording to my dad) about 3AM trying to convnce him to let me go with her. Unfortunately, he would not budge She signed Marie Knight. Years later I lived a couple blocks from her in Philadelphia in 1960. I was not aware of her passing until now.