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Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Rosetta Nubin Tharpe
March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973
Notable: Musician
Nationality: American

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Rosetta Nubin was born on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas the only child of Willis Atkins and Katie Bell Nubin Atkins. Nubin’s official given name at birth is unclear as she did not have an official birth certificate and later interchangeably used variations of her first name and both of her parents’ last names. Like many Black people in the South, her parents worked as farm laborers.

Possibly both of Nubin’s parents were evangelists. Her mother was a member of the Church of God in Christ and contributed as a singer, musician, and preacher. Nubin began playing the guitar at four, likely influenced by her mother who played the mandolin. By age six she was accompanying her mother to performances and spent her childhood to teen years traveling throughout the South to perform with her mother’s evangelist group.

In the mid-1920s, Nubin and her mother settled in Chicago (it’s unclear what happened to her father). They continued to travel and perform on the gospel church circuit while living in a larger city. These experiences exposed Nubin to more musical styles and influences.

Nubin’s innovative blend of musical styles helped her stand out. But arguably, Nubin herself attracted attention because there were few notable female guitarists at the time. While Nubin also sang, she was primarily associated with playing the guitar.

In 1934, Nubin’s mother arranged for her to marry Reverend Thomas Tharpe. Thus Rosetta Nubin became “Rosetta Tharpe”. The couple formed a duo with Tharpe performing music while Thomas preached. Unfortunately, the marriage and professional partnership only lasted for about four years. It ended when Tharpe came to believe that Thomas was primarily interested in her for financial gain.

Heartbroken, Tharpe left Thomas and Chicago for New York City with her mother in tow. Arriving in New York City in 1938, at just 23 Tharpe was booked at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club where she performed jazz renditions for the mostly White audience. Her past track record and becoming a hit performer at the Cotton Club helped Tharpe land a recording contract with Decca Records.

Thomas A. Dorsey who began as a bluesman and transitioned to gospel was a frequent inspiration. But Nubin did the reverse, taking several of his gospel songs and reimagining them with secular arrangements. Tharpe scored her first hit single with the blues and jazz-infused “Rock Me”. The song was an adaptation of Dorsey’s gospel song, “Hide Me in Thy Bosom”. Using a similar formula, she scored another hit with an adaptation of “This Train”.

As a child and teen, Tharpe’s gospel performances attracted large church crowds. As Tharpe figured out her creative lane, she began experimenting with combining blues and jazz with gospel. Her music originally focused solely on inspirational spiritual themes. But as she dove into secular music, Tharpe began to sing about love and sexuality.

Tharpe was a pioneer, infusing gospel songs with her blues guitar and the backing of a jazz ensemble. Few musicians of the time played both gospel and secular music, let alone combined the two. The change in Tharpe’s music drew criticism from more conservative churchgoers.

Given the time, Tharpe had to contend with segregation. This meant that while famous, she was denied service at hotels and restaurants. Yet, Tharpe toured extensively during the 1940s and collaborated with other major artists such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She also spent several years as the frontwoman of Lucky Millinder’s band.

Of particular note, in 1944 Tharpe recorded “Strange Things Happening Everyday” which referenced social issues and major current events. The song would become one of Tharpe’s most famous records. It is considered a historic recording due to being the first gospel song to cross over to Billboard’s Top 10 R&B records chart. It is also arguably considered to be the first rock-and-roll song. Sister Rosetta Tharpe would come to be viewed as the Godmother of Rock and Roll though she returned to gospel in the late 1940s.

Tharpe was officially divorced from Thomas Tharpe in 1943. Her other relationships with men were publicized and she would marry twice more. Conversely, her relationships with women were known within the music industry but not widely shared with the public.

One of her most notable relationships was with Marie Knight, a gospel singer. Working together, the couple toured and managed their business affairs which was very rare for women of the time. Unfortunately, the couple had broken up professionally and romantically by 1950. This was likely due to their gospel fans strongly opposing their foray into the blues. However, some sources state that Knight drifted away after experiencing the tragic loss of her mother and two small children in a fire.

In 1951, Tharpe participated in a PR stunt where she married her manager, Russell Morrison, in front of 20,000 gospel fans. The crowd paid to attend the wedding which became a concert that was recorded live and released as an album. Proceeds from the stunt went to Decca Records. Tharpe and Russell would have issues in their relationship but remained married for 22 years.

Tharpe’s popularity began to decline in the 1950s. Her concert dates dwindled and she signed a new deal with Mercury Records several years after losing her contract with Decca. But as interest in Tharpe and her music declined in America, her popularity grew in Europe. Between 1957 and 1970, Tharpe performed on multiple European tours.

Unfortunately, while Tharpe experienced a new kind of success in the 1960s, the decade also came with some challenges. Tharpe’s mother died in 1968 while she was in England. Given the close nature of their relationship, Tharpe entered a period of depression. Further complicating matters was a new diabetes diagnosis which further depressed Tharpe.

In her depression, Tharpe did little to manage her diabetes and suffered a stroke in 1970. The stroke affected Tharpe’s speech and led to her leg being amputated. Yet, despite her issues, Tharpe continued to perform until she suffered a second stroke in 1973 which led to her death a few days later on October 9, 1973.

In 1998, the USPS issued a Sister Rosetta Tharpe stamp. 20 years later she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many musicians of the 1950s and 1960s who would go on to become rock and roll legends in their own right cite Tharpe as a major influence with some recording their version of her songs.

Sources

  1. Alexander, Otis. 2013. “Rosetta Atkins [Sister Rosetta] Tharpe (1915-1973) .” Blackpast.Org. March 29, 2013. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/tharpe-sister-rosetta-1915-1973/.
  2. Diaz-Hurtado, Jessica. 2017. “Forebears: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” NPR. August 24, 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/08/24/544226085/forebears-sister-rosetta-tharpe-the-godmother-of-rock-n-roll.
  3. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2024. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. May 13, 2024. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sister-Rosetta-Tharpe.
  4. Funk, Clayton. n.d. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” AAEP 1600. The Ohio State University. Accessed June 6, 2024. https://aaep1600.osu.edu/book/06_Tharpe.php.
  5. Liptrott, Josephine. 2015. “Biography: Sister Rosetta Tharpe – The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Heroine Collective. November 3, 2015. http://www.theheroinecollective.com/sister-rosetta-tharpe-the-godmother-of-rock-n-roll/.
  6. Wald, Gayle. n.d. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Accessed June 6, 2024. https://rockhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/Sister_Rosetta_Tharpe_2018.pdf.
  7. “‘Sister Rosetta’ Tharpe (1915–1973).” 2024. Encyclopedia of Arkansas. April 23, 2024. https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/sister-rosetta-tharpe-1781/.

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