Mar. 20, 1915 Cotton Plant Woodruff County Arkansas, USA
Oct. 9, 1973 Philadelphia Philadelphia County Pennsylvania, USA
Gospel Singer, Songwriter, Musician, and Recording Artist. Affectionately known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, she attained great popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings, a unique mix of spiritual lyrics and early rock and roll accompaniment. She crossed the line between sacred and secular music by her performances in nightclubs and concert halls, which had an early influence on recording artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, and Little Richard. Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, her parents picked cotton to earn a living. She started singing and playing the guitar at the age of four and was accompanied by her mother on the mandolin and preached at tent revivals. In 1921 her father left to become a traveling evangelist and she and her family moved to Chicago, Illinois in the late 1920s, where she continued to play blues and jazz music privately and gospel music at public venues. In 1934 she married Thomas Thorpe (from which "Tharpe" is a misspelling), who was a Church of God in Christ preacher. After a 4-year abusive relationship, she left her husband in 1938 and moved with her mother to New York City, New York. On October 31, 1938, she signed a recording contract with Decca Records and her records shocked churchgoers but were highly regarded by secular audiences. Appearances at places like the Cotton Club and Café Society with Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway, and in John Hammond's extravaganza "From Spirituals to Swing" increased her popularity. Songs like "This Train" and "Rock Me," that combined gospel themes with bouncy up-tempo arrangements, became overnight hits among audiences that had little to no exposure to gospel music. She continued recording during World War II, being only one of two gospel artists to record V-discs for the troops overseas. In 1944 she recorded "Strange Things Happening Every Day" with Decca boogie woogie pianist Sammy Price, which showcased her virtuosity as a guitarist along with her witty lyrics and delivery, and was the first gospel song to make Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade (later known as Race Records, then R&B) Top Ten. She would accomplish that feat several more times in her career. She toured throughout the 1940s, backed by various gospel quartets, including The Dixie Hummingbirds. After World War II she was paired by Decca with Marie Knight, who brought a more subdued style to the mix, and they recorded "Up Above My Head." In 1951 she married Russell Morrison and she attracted 25,000 paying customers to her wedding, which was followed by a performance at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC. In the 1950s their popularity waned when they crossed over into blues. Knight later attempted to cross over to popular music and Tharpe continued with gospel, but was rebuffed by many of her former fans. In April-May 1964, with a sudden surge of popular interest in the blues, she toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan, along with recording artists Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and others. One of her concerts was recorded by Granada Television, in the rain, at the unused railway station at Wilbraham Road, in Manchester, England in May 1964, with the band performing on one platform and the audience seated on the opposite platform. In 1970 she suffered a stroke and had one of her legs amputated due to complications from diabetes. She died three years later from another stroke in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the eve of a scheduled recording session. From 1941 to 1969 she recorded 17 albums. On July 15, 1998 the US Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp in her honor. Her 1944 hit "Down By The Riverside" was selected for the American Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2004. In 2007 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and in January 2008 Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell proclaimed January 11 as "Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day" with a benefit concert in her honor at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, Pennsylvania, to help raise funds for a marker on her grave.
She came to be known as the "Godmother of Rock & Roll". She influenced many musicians including Little Richard, Elvis , Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry. In 2008, 35 years after her death, the Governor of Pennsylvania, declared that January 11 would be known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day. (bio by: William Bjornstad)