Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Nubin’s mother, Katie Bell Nubin, was a singer, a mandolinist, and an evangelist preacher for the Church of God. Nubin grew up around music and in a progressive Baptist church that allowed women to preach, and where she was encouraged her to sing and play the guitar at an early age.
Proving to be a musical prodigy, young Nubin began performing alongside her mother onstage by the age of four. By the age of six, Nubin was performing regularly with her mother as part of a traveling evangelical troupe. She was known as the “Singing and guitar-playing miracle” throughout the American South.
Nubin and her mother settled in Chicago, Illinois by the mid-1920s. Young Rosetta gained acclaim as a musical prodigy and a prominent Black female guitarist; Memphis Minnie (a blues legend) was the only other Black woman at that time to realize such acclaim.
By 1934, 19-year-old Nubin married a preacher named Thomas Tharpe. Rosetta and her mother allowed Tharpe to join their musical act. The Tharpes’ marriage did not last. Instead of reverting back to her maiden name, however, Rosetta decided to go by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She maintained her stage name for the duration of her career.
By 1938, Tharpe signed a contract with Decca Records. She recorded four gospel tunes for Decca in one session. Those were the first gospel songs that Decca produced and they established Tharpe as the first gospel singer to achieve commercial success in the United States.
Her commercial success landed her a gig in John Hammond’s Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall. Many people found her performance to be controversial. In addition to her performing gospel tunes before a secular audience and alongside blues and jazz musicians, religious conservatives were not keen to female guitarists. Her controversial performance landed her regular gigs at the Cotton Club the jazz musician, Cab Calloway.
By the mid-1940s, Tharpe landed a collaboration with jazz pianist Sammy Price. They recorded bluesy/jazzy beats accompanied by gospel singing which attracted much criticism. Tharpe was accused of playing the devil’s music. By the late 1940s, she returned to her gospel roots, recording more traditional gospel tracks.
Tharpe later recorded a blues album with Russell Morrison, her second husband. The album failed commercially and lost Tharpe her loyal fan base–the gospel community. She spent the last two decades of her career performing throughout Europe and the U.S. as a gospel musician.
While accompanying Muddy Waters on a blues tour through Europe in 1970, Tharpe suffered a stroke. Her leg was amputated due to diabetes-related complications. She continued to perform until she suffered her second stroke in 1973. Sister Rosetta Tharpe died days later on October 9, 1973, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the age of 58. She left behind a unique style of blues, folk, and swing-blended guitar playing that laid the foundation for rock and roll music.
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