The first semester of my freshman year of college my professor did an exercise with us to teach us about unknown African American women who were trailblazers in their individual fields. It was in that class that I first was introduced to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was a pioneer of her time, a gospel singer with incredible guitar skills who was unwilling to be bound by the preset rules of the world she was apart of. She managed an almost 50 year professional career with international success, as an African American woman. It was this information, coupled with the fact that she spent her early years of her career in Chicago (my home town) that I decided I wanted a deeper look into the success, failures, life, and success of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a rock star and a gospel artist. She pioneered the sound and style that rock n roll music was known for at its inception. Even with a long career, that spanned a little over 50 years, her male peers in rock music never gave her the credit she deserved while she was alive. Taking her style but not even willing to say her name. Despite never getting her just due, Tharpe had a long and prosperous career. As well as pioneering many rock music techniques, she also broke down many barriers in the gospel music industry.
Tharpe began her career as a child in a COGIC church. Where people came from all of the city and eventually all over the nation to see this little brown girl stand on a piano and play her guitar. Eventually her and her mother went on tour to church conventions throughout the country evangelizing and playing music. As she grew older, and got married, she signed to a label and began putting out records that gained her commercial success very quickly. But with the success came controversy, as she continued to tour she began performing in night clubs and bars, much to the chagrin of the church people she began her career with. But this never phased her, and she continued to press on, grow musically, and achieve new heights.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born with the name Rosetta Nubin in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas to Katie Bell Nubin and a man believed to be named Willis Atkins. Her mother was a singer and preacher and was one of Rosetta’s earliest musical influences. As early as four years old Rosetta could be seen singing and playing guitar alongside her mother. Eventually both mother and child were part of an evangelical group that traveled around the country preaching and playing in mega tents. After some time of traveling the two landed in Chicago, where they stayed and continued to make music at the historic COGIC church on 4oth street. It was their that she became known as a true child prodigy. And gained a tremendous amount of support at that time. Soon after Rosetta married the COGIC preacher Thomas Thorpe who, although the marriage didn’t last but for a moment, she took the last name of and altered to make her stage name Rosetta Tharpe.
At the age of 23, Tharpe was signed to Decca Records and released four songs that received huge commercial success. The songs (“Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “My Man and I” and “The Lonesome Road” pushed her forward and cemented her as America’s first nationally successful gospel singer. Following the release of her mega hit singles Tharpe got the opportunity to perform at the infamous John Hammond Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. This unique opportunity was noteworthy not only for its famed location but also because of it secular audience and that she performed alongside secular musicians. During that performance Rosetta Tharpe shocked the audience with her unique guitar style that meshed folk, blues, and swing sounds while she sang a gospel text. It was that style of playing that truly set her apart from all others. It was from their that as she continued to receive commercial success that Tharpe began to push the envelope even more.
As Tharpe began to grow musically she left audiences more and more in awe. She performed gospel music in churches and secular clubs . And by the 1940s began playing electric guitar more in more. The sounds she created on electric guitar would go on to influence the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. With her secular sounds and sacred text Tharpe’s music brought her in front of racially mixed audiences and was even chosen as one of two African American to be put on V-discs as entertainment for American soldiers in WWII. One of her greastest accomplishments happened in 1944 when she teamed up with blues legend, pianist Sammy Price. Their most famous track was “Two Little Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread” was a hit for its traditional gospel lyrics with non traditional sound.
After a mega wedding and performance attend by 25,000 paying guests, Rosetta Tharpe made a decision to branch out completely into the secular music world. Along with Marie Knight, Tharpe recorded her first full length secular project. A blues album. It was after this project that Tharpe began to see the first real down fall in her career. Her once loyal fan base began to trickle away as they believed that she was losing her religious morality. With one album the religious community literally wrote her off as a devil worshiper and removed support from her almost entirely. After the release of the blues album, which was also a commercial flop, Tharpe’s career never reached the same height.
Even without the same popularity as before, Tharpe still continued regular performing and touring. Still singing mostly gospel music. She spent a large part of the two decades after her career height in Europe. Some of her most noteworthy performances of that time including a show with legend James Cleveland at the Apollo in Harlem and a late sixties performance at the Newport Jazz Festival.
During a special blues tour with Muddy Waters traveling Europe, Tharpe got very sick and abruptly had to return home. After which she suffered and stroke and had her leg amputated due to an issue with diabetes. Even after the surgery, she still continued to do shows and perform for audiences. However after suffering from yet another stroke, Sister Rosetta Thape passed away on October 9, 1973, at the age of 58.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the epitome of the word anomaly. She is truly one of a kind in her career, musical styling, and life approach. Rosetta Tharpe made music because she loved it and it connected her with God. Everything else was just noise to her. Very few people can say they performed for over 50 years, playing a mixture of four to five genres. Tharpe is a trailblazer and a true originator. She had an innate understanding of music, an understanding that allowed her music to be free and unconfined. You could not label her or her music and that was just the way she liked it. Although she faced controversy and failure Sister Rosetta Tharpe is truly a legend in her own right. She continued to rise above and set new heights for herself and her music. Proof of just how much of a legend she is: Sister Rosetta Tharpe has just been inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame! Sip on that.
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