Happy 107th Birthday Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Today is the 107th birthday of the musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe. More than forty years after her death, she is finally getting the recognition she deserves and I cannot help but believe it took that long because she was a queer black woman pioneer in a white cisgender male industry. She influenced early rock-and-roll musicians, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.

NAME: Sister Rosetta Tharpe
BIRTH NAME: Rosetta Nubin or Rosether Atkins
DATE OF BIRTH: March 20, 1915
PLACE OF BIRTH: Cotton Plant, Arkansas, U.S.
DATE OF DEATH: October 9, 1973 (aged 58)
PLACE OF DEATH: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
32-Cent Commemorative United States Postage Stamp issued July 15, 1998
Blues Hall of Fame, 2007
Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania; January 11th
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2017

BEST KNOWN FOR: Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an American singer and guitarist, popular in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings, characterized by a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and electric guitar that was extremely important to the origins of rock and roll.

Tharpe was born on March 20, 1915, as Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, to Katie Bell Nubin and Willis Atkins, who were cotton pickers. However, researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc give her birth name as Rosether Atkins (or Atkinson), her mother’s name being Katie Harper. Little is known of her father except that he was a singer. Tharpe’s mother Katie was also a singer and a mandolin player, deaconess-missionary, and women’s speaker for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), which was founded in 1894 by Charles Harrison Mason, a black Pentecostal bishop, who encouraged rhythmic musical expression, dancing in praise and allowing women to sing and teach in church. Encouraged by her mother, Tharpe began singing and playing the guitar as Little Rosetta Nubin at the age of six and was cited as a musical prodigy.

About 1921, at age six, Tharpe had joined her mother as a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe. Billed as a “singing and guitar playing miracle,” she accompanied her mother in performances that were part sermon and part gospel concert before audiences across the American South. In the mid-1920s, Tharpe and her mother settled in Chicago, Illinois, where they performed religious concerts at the Roberts Temple COGIC on 40th Street, occasionally traveling to perform at church conventions throughout the country. Tharpe developed considerable fame as a musical prodigy, standing out in an era when prominent black female guitarists were rare. In 1934, at age 19, she married Thomas Thorpe, a COGIC preacher, who accompanied her and her mother on many of their tours. The marriage lasted only a few years, but she decided to adopt a version of her husband’s surname as her stage name, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In 1938, she left her husband and moved with her mother to New York City. Although she married several times, she performed as Rosetta Tharpe for the rest of her life.

On October 31, 1938, aged 23, Tharpe recorded for the first time – four sides for Decca Records backed by Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra. The first gospel songs recorded by Decca, “Rock Me”, “That’s All”, “My Man and I” and “The Lonesome Road”, were instant hits, establishing Tharpe as an overnight sensation and one of the first commercially successful gospel recording artists. “Rock Me” influenced many rock-and-roll singers, such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1942, the music critic Maurie Orodenker, describing Tharpe’s “Rock Me”, wrote “It’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe for the rock & roll spiritual singing.”

She had signed a ten year contract with Millinder. Her records caused an immediate furor: many churchgoers were shocked by the mixture of gospel-based lyrics and secular-sounding music, but secular audiences loved them. Tharpe played on several occasions with the white singing group the Jordanaires.

Tharpe’s appearances with Cab Calloway at Harlem’s Cotton Club in October 1938 and in John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938, gained her more fame, along with notoriety. Performing gospel music for secular nightclub audiences and alongside blues and jazz musicians and dancers was unusual, and in conservative religious circles a woman playing the guitar in such settings was frowned upon. Tharpe fell out of favor with segments of the gospel community.

By 1943 she considered rebuilding a strictly gospel act, but she was contractually required to perform more worldly material. Her nightclub performances, in which she would sometimes sing gospel songs amid scantily clad showgirls, caused her to be shunned by some in the gospel community.

During this time masculinity was directly linked to guitar skills. Tharpe was often offered the compliment that she could “play like a man”, demonstrating her skills at guitar battles at the Apollo.

Tharpe continued recording during World War II, one of only two gospel artists able to record V-discs for troops overseas.

Her song “Strange Things Happening Every Day”, recorded in 1944 with Sammy Price, Decca’s house boogie woogie pianist, showcased her virtuosity as a guitarist and her witty lyrics and delivery. It was the first gospel song to appear on the Billboard magazine Harlem Hit Parade. This 1944 record has been called the first rock and roll record. Tharpe toured throughout the 1940s, backed by various gospel quartets, including the Dixie Hummingbirds.

In 1946, Tharpe saw Marie Knight perform at a Mahalia Jackson concert in New York. Tharpe recognized a special talent in Knight. Two weeks later, Tharpe showed up at Knight’s doorstep, inviting her to go on the road. They toured the gospel circuit for a number of years, during which they recorded hits such as “Up Above My Head” and “Gospel Train”. Though dismissed by both artists as gossip, several in the Gospel community speculated that Knight and Tharpe maintained a romantic and sexual relationship.

Starting in 1949, their popularity took a sudden downturn. Mahalia Jackson was starting to eclipse Tharpe in popularity, and Knight harbored a desire to break free as a solo act into popular music. Furthermore, around this time, Knight lost her children and mother in a house-fire. That same year, to commemorate Tharpe’s first anniversary of being a homeowner in Richmond, Virginia, Tharpe put on a concert at what is now the Altria Theater. Supporting her for that concert were the Twilight Singers, whom Rosetta adopted as her background singers for future concerts, renaming them The Rosettes.

Tharpe attracted 25,000 paying customers to her wedding to her manager, Russell Morrison (her third marriage), followed by a vocal performance at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., in 1951. In 1956, Tharpe recorded an album with the gospel quartet The Harmonizing Four, titled Gospel Train. In 1957, Tharpe was booked for a month-long tour of the UK by British trombonist Chris Barber.

In April and May 1964, Tharpe toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan, alongside Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, Ransom Knowling and Little Willie Smith, Reverend Gary Davis, Cousin Joe, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Tharpe was introduced on stage and accompanied on piano by Cousin Joe Pleasant. Under the auspices of George Wein, the Caravan was stage-managed by Joe Boyd. A concert, in the rain, was recorded by Granada Television at the disused railway station at Wilbraham Road, Manchester, in May 1964. The band performed on one platform while the audience was seated on the opposite platform.

Tharpe’s biographer said in 2018 that “she influenced Elvis Presley, she influenced Johnny Cash, she influenced Little Richard”. When asked about her music and about rock and roll, Tharpe is reported to have said, “Oh, these kids and rock and roll — this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever”.

Tharpe’s performances were curtailed by a stroke in 1970, after which one of her legs was amputated as a result of complications from diabetes. On October 9, 1973, the eve of a scheduled recording session, she died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a result of another stroke. She was buried at Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia.

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