Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born as Rosetta Nubin on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Tharpe’s mother, Katie Bell Nubin, was a singer, mandolin player and evangelist preacher for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). At the encouragement of her mother,Tharpe began singing and playing the guitar at the age of four. She was billed as “Little Rosetta Nubin, the singing and guitar playing miracle,” and was by all accounts a musical prodigy.
By the age of six, she had joined her mother as a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe. Tharpe accompanied her mother in hybrid performances—part sermon, part gospel concert — before audiences all across the American South.
In the mid-1920s, Tharpe and her mother settled down in Chicago. At the age of 19, Rosetta Tharpe married a COGIC preacher named Thomas Thorpe. 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 used for the rest of her career.
In 1938, Tharpe moved to New York City where she signed with Decca Records. In October of that year, she recorded four songs: “Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “The Man and I,” and “The Lonesome Road.” The first gospel songs ever recorded for Decca, all four became instant hits and established Tharpe as one of the nation’s first commercially successful gospel singers. Then on December 23, 1938, Tharpe performed in John Hammond’s famous Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall. Performing gospel music in front of secular audiences and alongside blues and jazz musicians proved to be highly controversial. She gained even more notoriety by performing regularly with jazz legend Cab Calloway at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.
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. In the mid-1940s, in the face of intense criticism from the religious community Tharpe returned to recording Christian music.
Tharpe’s performances were curtailed by a stroke in 1970. She died in 1973 at the age of 58 after another stroke, on the eve of a scheduled recording session.
One of the most celebrated musicians of all time, Sister Rosetta Tharpe enjoyed a celebrity rarely attained by gospel musicians before or since.