She could out-play Chuck. She could out-sing Aretha. And she influenced everyone from Elvis to Rod.
The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a true pioneer. She helped shape modern popular music, was one of the few black female guitarists to ever find commercial success and the first artist to blend gospel with the secular. She inspired legends such as Jonny Cash and Little Richard, yet sadly, she seldom receives the recognition she so richly deserves in musical history.
It’s just over a century since Rosetta Nubin was born in Arkansas, the daughter of cotton pickers. Her mother was heavily involved in the Church of God in Christ as a preacher, gospel singer and mandolin player. She encouraged her little girl’s obvious musical talents and, by the age of six, Rosetta was performing in a travelling evangelical troupe, singing and playing the guitar to audiences all over the American South.
Rosetta and her mother moved to Chicago in the mid-1920s and the duo continued to perform in their local church and also at religious events around the country. Rosetta was soon hailed as a child prodigy, attracting huge followings amongst church and gospel communities. Chicago exposed her to the sounds of jazz and blues, and it wasn’t long before Rosetta began to incorporate these styles into her gospel music. In 1938, following a brief marriage to a preacher named Thomas Thorpe, from whose surname she would craft her stage name, she and her mother moved to New York. There she recorded her music for the first time, becoming the first gospel artist to be recorded by Decca Records.
Rock Me, That’s All, My Man and I and The Lonesome Road were huge hits and catapulted Rosetta to stardom, making her one of the first commercially successful gospel artists. The influence of jazz and blues can be heard in these early recordings, especially in Rosetta’s guitar solos, and she was backed by “Lucky” Millinder’s jazz orchestra rather than a traditional gospel band. The mixture of gospel lyrics with such up-tempo, worldly-sounding music, shocked and alienated many of Rosetta’s more orthodox followers. Secular audiences, however, loved it.
Towards the end of 1938, Rosetta appeared with jazz star, Cab Calloway, at Harlem’s Cotton Club and in the Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. These performances helped bring her to a much wider audience but with that, the disapproval also became more widespread. Playing gospel music alongside jazz and blues exponents and in irreligious “nightclub” venues was unheard of. Furthermore, a woman playing guitar music in such a setting was positively scandalous.
Despite this, Rosetta continued to play and record throughout World War II and was one of only two gospel artists to record V-Discs for the US troops serving overseas. In 1944, she recorded Strange Things Happening Every Day with boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price. It cemented her reputation as an extraordinary guitarist and showcased her incredible vocal skills. It was the first gospel recording to make the top ten of Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (which later became the R&B Chart) and some even deem it the very first rock ‘n’ roll record.
After the war, Rosetta worked with a young contralto singer, Marie Knight. The duo toured the gospel circuit for a number of years and made a couple of highly successful recordings. Again, Rosetta was incredibly popular among church people, to the extent that 25,000 people paid to attend her lavish 1951 wedding to her manager, Russell Morrison. Following more blues-orientated recordings during the 1950s, however, Rosetta’s popularity in America began to wane and she ceased working with Marie Knight. The swell of interest in blues music in Europe during the sixties drew Rosetta and she toured the continent in 1964 as part of the Blues & Gospel Caravan.
In 1970, Rosetta had to cut short a European tour with Muddy Waters and return to the USA because of ill health. She suffered a stroke and, due to complications arising from diabetes, had to have a leg amputated. Nevertheless, despite such serious health issues, she continued to work and performed regularly. In October 1973, just prior to a scheduled recording session, Rosetta suffered a second stroke and died a few days later. She was aged just 58.
She was laid to rest at Northwood Cemetery in Pennsylvania. The headstone erected decades after her death reads, “She would sing until you cried, and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She kept the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”