Sister Rosetta Tharpe rose to fame in 1938, inspiring fans with her vivacious singing, footstomping, and virtuoso guitar playing. She is credited with inventing the subgenre of pop gospel. Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Point, Arkansas, on March 20, 1915. Her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, was an evangelist for the Church of God in Christ who sang and played mandolin. Young Rosetta mastered guitar by age 6 and accompanied her mother's performances. She herself had a resonant vibrato singing voice. Her family moved to Chicago in 1920. In the early part of the decade, Rosetta nd her mother were part of Rev. F.W. McGee's itinerant revival group. Rosetta was inspired by the performing styles of her mother and a blind pianist named Arizona Dranes. She learned electric guitar and piano as well, and had a resonant vibrato singing style.
By the mid-1930s, Rosetta met and married pastor Thomas J. Thorpe, a Harlem leader of the Holiness Church. Thorpe had expected Rosetta to settle down and be more domestic, but Rosetta had no intentions of doing so, she truly enjoyed performing. They soon divorced, and Rosetta changed her surname to "Tharpe". Word quickly spread about Tharpe's sensational performances. In 1938 she was featured in John Hammond's "From Spirituals to Swing" show at Carnegie Hall. That same year, Decca, the largest and most well known label at that time, signed her as one of their acts. Her first singles were "Rock Me" and "Fast Train". In the 1940s, Rosetta collaborated with the Golden Gate group. She was one of two African American gospel acts featured on a V-disc, a record sent to troops overseas in WWII. Gospel was a very popular genre the war, and Rosetta was an ideal act to deliver that music, stepping up the tempo of many traditional spirituals and giving them more widespread appeal. Rosetta would tour with the Dixie Hummingbirds, another gospel group, and record with Marie Knight and Sammy Price.
Rosetta dressed to the nines and played in clubs and bars where many gospel acts didn't dare go, consequently, Rosetta was a controversial figure of her times. LA Times reporter Lynell George described Rosetta with the following: "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."
In the 1950s, Rosetta released a Blues album that offended her core audience. She started performing more in Europe because back home the crowds didn't come back for about a decade. This move might be called "selling out" these days, ironically, this new side of Rosetta was very inspiring to younger musicians that would become legends themselves; these included Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Isaac Hayes, BB King, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley. Apparently it was not until Cash died that fans were aware Rosetta was his favorite; Roseanne, his daughter, revealed this in an interview following his death in 2003.
By the 1960s, Rosetta's luck had turned around in America. In 1960, she was performed in a gospel show with the Caravans and James Cleveland at the Apollo. In 1967, she was featured at the Newport Folk Festival. The next five years, though, would be Rosetta's toughest yet. In 1969, while she was on a European tour, she learned her mother had died. In the next three years, Rosetta would lose her friend, gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, and suffer several strokes herself. On October 9, 1973, Rosetta died.
The late 1990s saw a renewed interest in Rosetta. Footage of her playing electric guitar and singing with a gospel choir was included in the 1997 film Amelie. In 2003, thirty years after her death, the album A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Shout, Sister, Shout was issued by MC Records. It featured female artists like Joan Osborne, Marie Knight, Marsha Ball, Victoria Williams, Rory Block, and Maria Muldaur. In 2007, the Raising Sand album by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant featured the song "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us", written by Sam Phillips. Phillips released her own version of the song in 2008.
Youtube links (some are just sound, no images or moving images):
"Up Above My Head"
"Didn't It Rain"
"Strange Things Happening Everyday"
"I Looked Down the Line"
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