In an era where women were merely an afterthought, when they were “kept in the kitchen” and “barefoot and pregnant,” and God forbid if you were a black woman in the South, times were certainly tough. But Sister Rosetta Tharpe didn’t care about stereotypes. She bucked the norm to become one of the greatest gospel singers, songwriters, guitarists and recording artists of the early 1900s.
Born Rosetta Nubin on March 20, 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas to cotton picking parents, Rosetta gained her love of music from her mother Katie Bell Nubin, who was a singer, mandolin player, evangelist and preacher. Rosetta picked up the guitar at the tender age of four and performed in her mother’s church, where she was soon named a musical prodigy. As her mother traveled in evangelical circles, Rosetta became known as the “singing and guitar playing miracle”
Rosetta and her mother settled in Chicago in the mid-1920s, and in 1934, at the age of 19, Rosetta married a preacher named Thomas Thorpe. Rosetta, along with her mother, continued to tour church conventions to perform, but by 1938 Rosetta left her husband and headed to New York with her mother. She did, however, take a variation of her ex-husband’s name for her stage name.
When she was 23, Rosetta entered the recording studio for the first time. Backed by “Lucky” Millinder’s jazz orchestra, Rosetta recorded the first gospel songs ever for Decca Records—”Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “My Man and I” and “The Lonesome Road.” All four tracks would become hits for Tharpe, and she was an “overnight sensation.” With great success came great outrage, mainly from the religious folks who were up in arms with Rosetta’s gospel lyrics being put to secular-sounding music. The disparagement backlash only fueled Rosetta’s rocket ride to stardom. Soon she was performing alongside jazz greats such as Cab Calloway at Harlem’s renowned Cotton Club and in John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” concert at the legendary Carnegie Hall.
Not only were the conservatives up in arms about Rosetta’s music, but her powerful, not to mention flamboyant performances were something relatively unheard of in the 1940s. Plus, a black woman playing guitar in front of white audiences, bringing black gospel music into their button-down world, was absolutely atrocious.
By 1943, the controversial as well as revolutionary singer wanted to step away from the Big Band sound she was playing and get back to more of her gospel roots, despite the churchgoers basically throwing her to the wolves. By the time World War II affected the world, Rosetta recorded with Sammy Price, Decca’s house boogie-woogie pianist. Their song “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” not only showcased what a fantastic guitarist Rosetta was, but it also housed her witty lyrics and delivery. The song eventually went on to become the first gospel song to make Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (later known as Race Records, then R&B) Top Ten, an accomplishment Rosetta would see throughout her career. The track has also been called the “first rock & roll record.”
When blues music found its way over to Europe in the 1960s, Rosetta made her way across the Atlantic to make herself a surefire global superstar. She toured the UK as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan, alongside Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, among others.
The 1970s began the downfall of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She suffered a stroke and had a leg amputated due to complications from diabetes. While in her hometown of Philadelphia preparing for a recording session, Rosetta died on October 9, 1973 after a second stroke. Rosetta Tharpe was 58. She was laid to rest at Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Since her death, Sister Rosetta Tharpe has been heralded as one of the greatest and one of the most pioneering women in music. In 1998, even the United States Postal Service paid homage to Rosetta with a 32-cent commemorative stamp. In 2007, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. There was a benefit concert was held to raise money for a gravestone for Rosetta and January 11 was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania.