Sister Rosetta Tharpe is widely considered to be one of the best Sanctified gospel singers of all time; a vivacious performer whose music often dabbled in the blues and swing, she was also one of the most controversial talents of her day, shocking purists with her leap into the secular market, performing in nightclubs and theaters, thus advancing spiritual music into the mainstream and paving the way for the rise of pop-gospel. A prodigy since the age of six, Tharpe was born on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, to Katie Bell Nubin, a traveling missionary, and shouter in the traditional gospel tradition known as “Mother Bell” across the circuit. Meanwhile, she accompanied her mother to Holiness conventions, singing hymns like “The Day Is Past and Gone” and “I Looked Down the Line.”
On March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin. Her mother was an evangelist, singer, and mandolin player. As early as four, Nubin was already performing as a singer and guitarist. At the tender age of six, she and her mother joined a traveling evangelist group, performing gospel songs in churches across the South. In the 1920s, the couple relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where they continued to sing at churches and other religious events. Many people from the gospel scene would regularly attend Nubin’s events. She grew up listening to jazz and blues in Chicago and eventually began incorporating such styles into her gospel concerts.
Nubin wed the Reverend Thomas A. Tharpe in 1934. While Tharpe was preaching, she could draw large crowds with her singing. They divorced in 1943 after splitting up in 1938, and she remarried again. Nonetheless, she remained in the spotlight under the name Tharpe. When her parents first split up, she and her mom went to the Big Apple.
Tharpe joined Lucky Millinder’s swing band and signed a record deal with Decca Records in 1938. Her debut single was a rendition of the religious ballad “Rock Me” that she infused with blues and jazz influences. The song was a smash hit, and it paved the way for subsequent records like “My Man and I” and “The Lonesome Road” (both 1938). Tharpe made a name for herself by fusing spiritual lyrics with blues-style guitar playing and a jazz band’s backing. Her fame grew after she started playing at the Cotton Club in Harlem and specializing in jazz for the all-white crowd.
Tharpe was a member of the Millinder band and toured with them throughout the 1940s. Together with jazz and boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price, she recorded “Strange Things Happening Every Day” in 1944. Tharpe’s guitar work and unique singing style were shown in this song. The song made history as the first gospel recording to crack the top 10 on Billboard’s race records chart. (During the 1940s, the recording business used ” race records ” to refer to albums featuring jazz, blues, and gospel performed by or for African Americans. After a while, the race records section of Billboard’s charts was renamed the rhythm and blues section. Music historians often refer to Tharpe as the “Godmother of Rock & Roll” because of her interpretation of “Strange Things Happening Every Day” as the first rock tune.
Tharpe’s musical career began in the gospel genre in the late 1940s. In the ’40s and ’50s, she toured with vocalist Marie Knight and recorded numerous hit singles with her, including “Beams of Heaven” (1947) and “He Watches Me” (1948). At some point in the early 1950s, the couple went their separate ways, and Tharpe’s profile in the United States subsequently fell. In her final years, Tharpe primarily toured Europe. She appeared in the television show Blues and Gospel Caravan in 1964. Even though she was sick by 1970, she kept on performing. On October 9, 1973, Tharpe passed away in Philadelphia. She was recognized as a groundbreaking figure in the music industry and given hall of fame status in 2018.
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