- Nina Kennedy
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Our latest guest on "The Noshing with Nina Show" was the "Rock Ballerina" herself, Kimberly Nichole. Kimberly received worldwide attention for her soul-stirring performance of "House of the Rising Sun" on NBC's "The Voice." She has since moved to London, but was in town to perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
During our lively conversation, we lamented the fact that black women are hardly recognized for their contribution to Rock and Roll. Kimberly brought up the name of rock legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who had only recently been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I had also just recently posted a clip of Rosetta Tharpe performing on our INFEMNITY Productions Facebook page. So in honor of Women's Herstory Month, here is our article on Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973) was an American singer, songwriter, and recording artist. 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, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Tharpe was a pioneer in her guitar technique; she was among the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, presaging the rise of electric blues. Her guitar playing technique had a profound influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s; a European tour with Muddy Waters in 1963 with a stop in Manchester is cited by prominent British guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.
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 in 1938 with the recording "Rock Me" and 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 release "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, with 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&B chart, in April 1945. The recording has been cited as precursor of rock and roll. On December 13, 2017, Tharpe was chosen for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born on March 20, 1915 as Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas to Katie Bell Nubin and Willis Atkins, who were cotton pickers. However, researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc give her birth name as Rosether Atkins (or Atkinson), her mother's name being Katie Harper. Little is known of her father, except that he was a singer. Tharpe's mother Katie was also a singer and a mandolin player, evangelist, and preacher for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), which was founded in 1894 by Charles Harrison Mason, a black Pentecostal bishop, who encouraged rhythmic musical expression, dancing in praise and allowing women to sing and teach in church. Encouraged by her mother, Tharpe began singing and playing the guitar as Little Rosetta Nubin at the age of four and was cited as a musical prodigy.
About 1921, at age six, Tharpe had joined her mother as a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe. Billed as a "singing and guitar playing miracle," she accompanied her mother in performances that were part sermon and part gospel concert before audiences across the American South. In the mid-1920s, Tharpe and her mother settled in Chicago, Illinois, where they performed religious concerts at the COGIC church on 40th Street, occasionally traveling to perform at church conventions throughout the country. Tharpe developed considerable fame as a musical prodigy, standing out in an era when prominent black female guitarists were rare. In 1934, at age 19, she married Thomas Thorpe, a COGIC preacher, who accompanied her and her mother on many of their tours. The marriage lasted only a few years, but she decided to adopt a version of her husband's surname as her stage name, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In 1938, she left her husband and moved with her mother to New York City. Although she married several times, she performed as Rosetta Tharpe for the rest of her life.
On October 31, 1938, aged 23, Tharpe recorded for the first time – four sides for Decca Records, backed by Lucky Millinder's jazz orchestra. The first gospel songs ever recorded by Decca, "Rock Me," "That's All," "My Man and I" and "The Lonesome Road" were instant hits, establishing Tharpe as an overnight sensation and one of the first commercially successful gospel recording artists. "Rock Me" influenced many rock-and-roll singers, such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1942, the music critic Maurie Orodenker, describing Tharpe's "Rock Me," wrote that "It's Sister Rosetta Tharpe for the rock-and roll spiritual singing." She had signed a seven-year contract with Reminder and was managed by Mo Galye. Her records caused an immediate furor: many churchgoers were shocked by the mixture of gospel-based lyrics and secular-sounding music, but secular audiences loved them. She played on several occasions with the white singing group the Jordanaires.
Tharpe's appearances with the jazz artist Cab Calloway at Harlem's Cotton Club in October 1938 and in John Hammond's "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938, gained her more fame, along with notoriety. These performances, which both shocked and awed the crowds, were controversial as well as revolutionary in several respects. Performing gospel music for secular nightclub audiences and alongside blues and jazz musicians and dancers was unusual, and in conservative religious circles a woman playing the guitar in such settings was frowned upon. For these reasons, Tharpe fell out of favor with segments of the gospel community. Her recordings of "This Train" and "Rock Me," which combined gospel themes with bouncy up-tempo arrangements, were hits in the late 1930s with audiences having little previous exposure to gospel music.
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 gospel community.
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 race.
Tharpe continued recording during 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 sexual relationship.
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 first 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 performance at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., in 1951. In 1957, Tharpe was booked for a month-long tour of the UK by British trombonist 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 Caravan, alongside Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, Ransom Knowling and Little Willie Smith, Reverend Gary Davis, Cousin Joe, and Sonny Terry and 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 opposite platform.
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 an unmarked grave in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia. A marker has since been placed on the grave.
A resurgence of interest in Tharpe's work has led to a biography, several 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 the 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 & Roll, written and directed by UK filmmaker Mick Csaky. In 2013 the film was shown in the US as part of the PBS series American Masters. The film has been repeated numerous times in the UK and US, most recently in March 2015 to mark the 100th anniversary of Tharpe's birth. On March 20, 2015, the UK newspaper The Guardian published a 100th-birthday tribute by Richard Williams. On September 12, 2016, the musical play Marie And Rosetta, based on the relationship between Tharpe and Marie Knight, opened at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.
On October 5, 2017, Tharpe was listed as a nominee for the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions. On December 13, 2017, she was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence.
Musically, Tharpe's unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll.
Little Richard referred to the stomping, shouting, gospel music performer as his favorite singer when he was a child. In 1947, she heard Richard sing before her concert at the Macon City Auditorium and later invited him on stage to sing with her; 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 influence on Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Other musicians, including 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, along with 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 Mic