SISTER ROSETTA THARPE (1915-1973) was one of gospel music’s first superstars, the first gospel performer to record for a major record label and an early crossover from gospel to secular music.
Tharpe became known as the “original soul sister” of recorded music and has been cited as an influence by Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and Little Richard.
Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, on March 20, 1915, Tharpe began performing at age 4, billed as “Little Rosetta Nubin, the singing and guitar playing miracle”. As a child, she could sing and keep on pitch and hold a melody. Her vocal qualities, however, paled beside her abilities on the guitar—she played individual tones, melodies, and riffs instead of just strumming chords. This talent was all the more remarkable because, at the time, few black women played guitar.
Her family moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, where she played blues and jazz in private and performed gospel music in public settings. After several years of working with her mother and on the advice of several Chicago promoters, Nubin moved to New York in the mid-1930s. She married minister Thomas A. Thorpe in 1934. The marriage was short-lived; after their divorce, Rosetta kept the last name, changing the spelling to “Tharpe” for use as her stage name. Later, in the 1940s, Tharpe was married a second time, to promoter Fosh Allen.
In 1938, Tharpe was signed to Decca Records and was successful immediately. Versions of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “This Train” and “Hide Me in Thy Bosom,” released as “Rock Me,” were smash hits featuring Tharpe on guitar and Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra as accompaniment. These releases started a trend for Tharpe, who recorded both traditional numbers for her gospel fan base and up-tempo, secular-influenced tunes for her growing white audience.
The popularity of her singles led to Tharpe’s inclusion in John Hammond’s black music extravaganza, “From Spirituals to Swing,” held in Carnegie Hall in New York City on December 23, 1938. After this well-publicized event, Tharpe went on a concert tour throughout the northeast. Tharpe’s popularity was so great that she was only one of two black gospel acts—the other was the Dixie Hummingbirds—to record “V-Discs” for U.S. troops overseas. In the late 1940s, Tharpe returned to more strictly religious songs, recording “Didn’t It Rain” (1947) and “Up Above My Head” (1947) with Marie Knight, a Sanctified shouter with a strong contralto and a more subdued style than Tharpe.
Tharpe continued her success in the religious market. Such was Tharpe’s popularity that on July 3, 1951, 25,000 people paid to see Tharpe’s third marriage to Russell Morrison, her manager, in a ceremony held at Washington DC’s Griffith Stadium.
Tharpe and Marie Knight parted ways after unsuccessfully trying to enter the blues music market. As a result of the foray into the pop music market, Tharpe’s popularity waned; soon her concert dates dropped off, and she lost her recording contract with Decca. Tharpe kept working and had signed with Mercury Records by the late 1950s. She first toured Europe in 1957 and made return trips in the 1960s, making several live recordings while overseas.
Although she never realized her comeback, Tharpe continued to perform. A stroke in 1970 necessitated a leg amputation and caused speech difficulties, but it only slowed her down. Tharpe continued to tour and perform until her death in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 9, 1973, the eve of a scheduled recording session. She was buried in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in an unmarked grave. In 2008, a concert was held to raise funds for a marker for her grave and January 11 was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania.
Concrete Loop features ‘Black History Spotlights’ each week honoring black people who have played pivotal roles in history. submissions are welcome.