Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the American Gospel and Blues singer, songwriter, guitarist, and recording artist, was popular in the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s. Her Blues-oriented style of guitar-playing and singing was an important influence on such musicians as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, as well as the overall formation of Rock and Roll. Some have referred to her as the "the original Soul Sister" and "the Godmother of Rock and Roll." At a time when virtuoso guitar skills were stereotyped as a sign of masculinity and most professional guitarists were men, Sister Rosetta held her own artistically and technically on the guitar.
Rosetta Nubin was born in 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas to Katie Bell Nubin and Willis Atkins. Not much is known about her father, except that he sang and could have been a musical influence for his daughter; but it was her mother, Katie Bell, who started Rosetta's singing career at 6 years of age. Katie Bell Nubin was an evangelist for the Church of God in Christ and she toured with Rosetta in an evangelical troupe to perform in church services and large revival meetings. Even at that early age, Rosetta was known nationally in the church as a versatile musician on guitar, piano, and vocals.
In the mid-1920s, Rosetta and her mother relocated to Chicago. They arrived there in the midst of The Great Migration of African Americans from the Southern states to the North. These newcomers brought new cultural and artistic forms that thrived in Chicago's rapidly expanding African American communities. At this time, two important musical genres, Jazz from New Orleans and the Blues from the Mississippi Delta, came together as the Northern Blues, which spun off a new kind of Gospel music in Chicago's African American churches. And young Rosetta found herself right in the middle of it all.
In 1934 when Rosetta was 19 her mother married her to a preacher Rev. Tommy Tharpe and they went to work for the Church of God in Christ. She would draw audiences with her singing and he would preach. After four years, however, the marriage did not work out. Rosetta realized that she had been a meal ticket and a source of income for Tommy, and she left Chicago in despair with her mother for a new start in New York. Her first job there was at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Rosetta played to an upscale, White audience. She sang Jazz songs with lyrics about "pleasing her man," instead of the inspirational Gospel themes she was known for. In the words of Ira Tucker Jr., a "bomb had been dropped on Gospel music" as the change in Rosetta's music upset the mostly conservative audiences in the church community. But nonetheless, Rosetta chose to defy conventions and perform both Jazz in nightclubs and Gospel in churches.
Despite her break with musical conventions Rosetta's persistence led to even more popularity. In 1938, she landed a contract with Decca Records and was also in demand to perform with big bands leading to a seven year contract with the band leader Lucky Millinder. In this contract was embedded a clause that required her to sing music she was assigned, none of which came from the gospel repertoire. Songs like "Tall Skinny Papa" had risqué undertones that offended many lovers of Gospel music. The biographer Gayle Wald noted that it is unclear if Rosetta truly wanted to sing Jazz lyrics with Millinder's band, or not; but eventually having gained enough fame in her own rite, Rosetta turned back to Gospel songs, delivered in an upbeat, Jazz style.
In the 1940s, Rosetta was famous and toured widely, usually singing with male Gospel quartets, such as the Dixie Hummingbirds. In one performance she broke racial conventions by appearing with the Jordanaires, a White Men’s Gospel quartet. Tharpe continued to tour during World War II and after the war to even larger audiences. One of her best known songs carried a witty, ironic political theme, "Strange Things Happening Every Day." The song was aimed at a range of events, from the Atomic Holocaust in Japan to the contradictions of racial segregation she encountered — a very famous musical star, forced to stay in separate Hotels for Black patrons. The song was the first Gospel recording to rank in the top 10 songs on Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade. Rosetta toured with her partner Marie Knight, with Marie on Piano and Rosetta on Guitar. Their relationship was known inside the music industry, but Rosetta kept it a secret from the public. They produced one of their well known hits "Up above my head, I Hear Music in the Air." The 1950s brought tragedy when Marie's mother and two small children were killed in a fire. Marie was traumatized and drifted away, leaving Rosetta on her own.
Several months later Rosetta agreed to participate in a publicity stunt, a wedding ceremony to be held in Washington's Griffith Stadium, with proceeds and recording rights going to Decca Records. The unusual problem was, however, that there was no one for her to marry. Soon before the wedding day she found Russell Morrison, who agreed to be her third spouse and manager. On the day of the ceremony, the wedding party stood on the pitcher's mound for the exchange of vows, followed by a concert and fireworks. Again, the marriage was not a smooth one, but they remained together for 22 years.
Later in the 1960s, Rosetta continued to attract audiences and she became popular in Great Britain. British young people knew about American Blues and Gospel music from syndicated American radio broadcasts and recordings. In the summer of 1964, Rosetta was booked with Granada Television to perform with other blues and gospel musicians, including the great Muddy Waters from Chicago, on a Folk, Blues, and Gospel television special. The program was filmed at an abandoned train station. And like many African-American musicians of that time, the favorable treatment they experienced offstage at British hotels and restaurants was a welcome change from racially segregated American establishments.
As Sister Rosetta's popularity rose in Great Britain, things began to slow down at home. Rosetta had developed health problems from diabetes, and the death of her mother in 1968 left her in a state of depression. The last known recording of Sister Rosetta was filmed in Denmark, in 1970, wherein she eulogized her mother with the song "Precious Lord." Sister Rosetta Tharpe died from a stroke in 1973.
Page author: M.B. & C.F.