SISTER ROSETTA THARPE (March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973) was an
American singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist. A pioneer
of mid-20th-century music, she attained popularity in the 1930s and
1940s with her gospel recordings, characterized by a unique mixture of
spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment that was a precursor of
rock and roll . She was the first great recording star of gospel music
and among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm-and-blues and
rock-and-roll audiences, later being referred to as "the original soul
sister" and "the godmother of rock and roll". She influenced
early rock-and-roll musicians, including
Little Richard , Johnny Cash
Chuck Berry ,
Elvis Presley and
Jerry Lee Lewis .
Willing to cross the line between sacred and secular by performing
her music of "light" in the "darkness" of nightclubs and concert halls
with big bands behind her, Tharpe pushed spiritual music into the
mainstream and helped pioneer the rise of pop-gospel, beginning with
her 1939 hit "This Train". Her unique music left a lasting mark on
more conventional gospel artists, such as Ira Tucker, Sr., of the
Dixie Hummingbirds . While she offended some conservative churchgoers
with her forays into the pop world, she never left gospel music.
Tharpe's 1944 hit "
Down by the Riverside " was selected for the
National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004,
which noted that it "captures her spirited guitar playing and unique
vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early
rhythm-and-blues performers" and cited her influence on "many gospel,
jazz , and rock artists". ("Down by the Riverside" was recorded by
Tharpe on December 2, 1948, in New York City, and issued as Decca
single 48106. ) Her 1945 hit "
Strange Things Happening Every Day ",
recorded in late 1944, featured Tharpe's vocals and electric guitar ,
Sammy Price (piano), bass and drums. It was the first gospel
record to cross over , hitting no. 2 on the _Billboard _ "race records
" chart, the term then used for what later became the R">
It has been suggested Tharpe had little choice in the material she
was contracted to record with Millinder. "Rosetta and Millinder were
increasingly at odds in 1943, as Rosetta itched to quit the big-band
circuit and renew her career as a strictly gospel act. As Roxie Moore
remembers, she hadn't wanted to do light fare poking fun at old-time
religion or worldly material like 'Tall Skinny Papa', but found
herself bound by contractual obligations." Her nightclub
performances, in which she would sometimes sing gospel songs amid
scantily clad showgirls, caused her to be shunned by some in the
During this time masculinity was directly linked to guitar skills.
Tharpe defied this gender construct and instead of being praised for
playing so uniquely and boldly was often offered the back handed
compliment from fans and media that she merely could "play like a
man", despite the fact that she could and did outplay many men of the
time exemplifying her skills at guitar battles at the Apollo . She was
revolutionary and disrupted the music genre with both her sex and
Tharpe continued recording during
World War II
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 make _Billboard '_s
Harlem Hit Parade (later known as
Race Records , then
R&B ) Top Ten, an achievement she would accomplish
several more times in her career. This 1944 record has been credited
by some as being 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
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 one-year
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
Griffith Stadium in
Washington, D.C. , in 1951. In
1957, Tharpe was booked for a month-long tour of the UK by British
Chris Barber .
In April and May 1964, at the height of a surge of popular interest
in the blues, she toured Europe as part of the
Blues and Gospel
Muddy Waters and
Otis Spann , Ransom Knowling and
Little Willie Smith,
Reverend Gary Davis ,
Cousin Joe , and Sonny
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
LATER LIFE AND DEATH
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 in
Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia.
A resurgence of interest in Tharpe's work has led to a biography,
NPR segments, scholarly articles, and honors. The United
States Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp to honor
Tharpe on July 15, 1998. In 2007, she was inducted posthumously into
Blues Hall of Fame . 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. A gravestone was put in place later that
year, and a Pennsylvania historical marker was approved for placement
at her home in the Yorktown neighborhood of Philadelphia. In 2011 BBC
Four aired a one-hour documentary, _Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The
Godmother of Rock it was Richard's first public performance outside of
the church. Following the show, she paid him for his performance,
which inspired him to become a performer. When
Johnny Cash gave his
induction speech at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, he referred to
Tharpe as his favorite singer when he was a child. His daughter
Rosanne Cash stated in an interview with
Larry King that Tharpe was
her father's favorite singer. Tharpe began recording with electric
guitar in the 1940s, with "That's All", which has been cited as an
Chuck Berry and
Elvis Presley . Other musicians,
Aretha Franklin ,
Jerry Lee Lewis , and
Isaac Hayes , have
identified her singing, guitar playing, and showmanship as an
important influence on them. She was held in particularly high esteem
by UK jazz/blues singer
George Melly .
Tina Turner credits Tharpe,
Mahalia Jackson , as an early musical influence. Such
diverse performers as
Meat Loaf ,
Neil Sedaka and
Karen Carpenter have
attested to the influence of Tharpe in the rhythmic energy she
emanated in her performances (Carpenter's drum fills are especially
reminiscent of Tharpe's "Chorlton Chug"). Later artists, such as Sean
Michel , have credited her influence with the performance of gospel
songs in more secular venues.
The Brixton band
Alabama 3 named a track after Tharpe on their debut
Exile on Coldharbour Lane _ (1997), and recorded a version of
her song "
Up Above My Head ". In 2007, the UK indie rock band the
Noisettes released the single "Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit) ",
from their album _What's the Time Mr. Wolf?_ Also in 2007, Alison
Robert Plant recorded a duet version of the song "Sister
Rosetta Goes Before Us", written by Sam Phillips . Phillips released
her version of the song on her 2008 album, _Don\'t Do Anything _.
Michelle Shocked opened her live gospel album _
ToHeavenURide _ (2007)
with "Strange Things Happening Every Day", along with a tribute to
In 2001, the French film _
Amélie _ included a scene showing the
protagonist's house-bound neighbor mesmerized by a montage of video
clips that featured a performance of "Up Above My Head" by Tharpe.
In 2014 the Canadian film _
Félix et Meira _ included about one
minute of Tharpe singing "Didn't It Rain" from the video of Tharpe's
1964 concert at the Wilbraham Road railway station.
In 2016 singer Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote and recorded "Oh Rosetta"
for her "The Things That We Are Made Of" album. Mary Chapin explained
during touring following the cd's release that she was imagining a
conversation with Sister Rosetta.
* _The Lonesome Road_, Decca 224 (1941)
* _Blessed Assurance_ (1951)
* _Wedding Ceremony of
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Russell Morrison_,
Decca DA-903 (1951)
* _Gospel Train_ (1956)
* _Famous Negro Spirituals and Gospel Songs_ (1957)
* _Sister Rosetta Tharpe_, MGM E3821 (1959)
* _Sister Rosetta Tharpe_, Omega OSL31 (1960)
* _Gospels in Rhythm_ (1960)
* _Live in 1960_ (1960)
* _The Gospel Truth with the Sally Jenkins Singers_ (1961)
* _Sister Rosetta Tharpe_, Crown LP5236 (1961)
* _Sister on Tour_ (1962)
* _Live in Paris_ (1964)
* _Live at the Hot Club de France_ (1966)
* _Negro Gospel
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Hot Gospel Tabernacle
Choir and Players_ (1967)
* _Precious Memories_, Savoy 14214 (1968)
Singing in My Soul_, Savoy 14224 (1969)
Her complete works up to 1961 were issued as seven double-CD box sets
by the French label Frémeaux ">US
R -webkit-column-width: 30em; column-width: 30em; list-style-type:
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