Sister Rosetta Tharpe is nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. It may well be that someone has written a blog post about her but if so I missed it. So as best I can, here’s her story.
Bob Dylan: “Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain. She was a big, good-looking woman and divine. Not to mention sublime and splendid. She was a powerful force of nature, a guitar-playing, singing evangelist.”
Rosetta Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915. Born Rosether Atkins, both her parents were musical and her mother was a pastor in the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ. A “stomp-down Christian” they called her mother Katie Bell, due to her fervent, impassioned singing and playing.
Rosetta started singing at the age of four and – gifted – was thought of as a musical prodigy. (I’ve lost count of the number of Southern artists who started by singing in church.)
By the age of six, with her mother, she was playing guitar and singing across the South. Settling in Chicago, she became exposed to a more urban form of church music, as well as blues and jazz. She and her mother traveled around from city to city, proselytizing and testifying in the name of the Lord. Amen!
In 1934, she married a church preacher named Thomas Tharpe and thus, by the age of 19, was Sister Rosetta Tharpe born. (Right in the middle of the Great Depression.) Let us say that a guitar-playing black woman was quite the unusual sight back then and maybe even today to a great extent. But the African-American congregants loved her singing and playing.
By 1938, she had had enough of her husband’s old school ways. Realizing he saw her as somewhat of a meal ticket, she left him, taking her mother with her to New York City. She fairly quickly got a job at Harlem’s Cotton Club, singing secular songs to a largely white audience. This didn’t endear her to the congregants of the Church of God in Christ.
As a result of her club performances with Cab Calloway, she joined forces with a bandleader named Lucky Millinder with whom she performed for several years. Rosetta then landed a contract with Decca Records, recording several songs with Millinder’s band.
I don’t know if this was one of them but I do know that this song, “That’s All,” influenced people like Chuck Berry. Now, this was recorded sometime in the ’40’s. Listen to Rosetta belt out the blues and whip off some great licks:
It’s actually somewhat unclear how much Rosetta wanted to sing these tunes versus having to. She was contracted to Millinder and she was a young black woman with no real power other than her considerable skills. But she sure sounds to me like she was into it.
But the lure of the church was great. She got back to singing gospel songs, swinging them with the big bands at night, toning them down for the church. Through her recordings and touring (with the gospel group, the Dixie Hummingbirds*), she became a big celebrity on the gospel circuit.
She also sang and toured with The Jordanaires, who later backed Elvis Presley. “She was the first person I knew with her name on the side of a bus and beds in back,” said one of the Jordanaires.
She traveled around the country on that bus, along with her band and backing singers, the Rosettes. They suffered all the bullshit indignities in the South of that era that we all know and that I’ve detailed before – white this, and colored that. Restaurants would refuse to serve them and white band members had to sometimes carry food out to the black performers on the bus.
By the mid-40’s, she had a hit on the “race records” chart with the traditional spiritual, “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” A number of people such as Johnny Cash (Tharpe was his favorite singer), Michelle Shocked and Tom Jones have covered this. Another scorcher. Somebody get her a stack of Marshall amps!:
She later teamed up with a pianist/singer named Marie Knight with whom she toured and recorded some songs.** One of those tunes, “Up Above My Head,” displays the terrific way they play off of each other in an exuberant call-and-response.
Marie Knight drifted off and stopped performing for a while due to a family tragedy. At the same time, Tharpe’s popularity started to decline with the rise of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and changing times. As a publicity stunt, in 1951 she got married to her manager in Washington D.C.’s now-defunct Griffith Stadium. In front of 25,000 people. Who brought her wedding gifts! Dishes. Toasters. A TV!
It was about this time that white artists like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis started discovering gospel as sung in black churches. Raised in churches themselves, they’d never quite seen the energy that they saw in the black churches. (Ironically, they had to sit in the back of the church in roped-off sections.) Little Richard’s first public non-church performance was in 1947 when Rosetta invited him to sing and even paid him. Hallelujah!
In the late ’50’s and mid-60’s, she went to England to perform. In 1964 she traveled there with bluesmen Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. This was part of the so-called Blues and Gospel Train and so I guess someone thought it would be a good idea for the troupe to actually perform at a train station.
This song is mislabeled as “Strange Things Happening Every Day” but is, in fact, “Didn’t it Rain.” Like the best performers, Rosetta manages to overcome that gap over the lonesome train tracks:
In 1968, Rosetta’s mother Katie Bell died in Philadelphia where she had previously moved. This took a toll on the 53-year-old Rosetta who had remained close to her mother. Around this time she was also diagnosed with diabetes.
Her final performance was in, of all places, Copenhagen. I’ve seen the video and she still sounded great and in full voice. Alas, complications from diabetes occurred and she wound up having a leg amputated.
After a series of strokes, at 58 years old, Rosetta Tharpe died on October 9, 1973, and is buried in Philadelphia. In 2008, the governor of Pennsylvania declared that henceforth, the eleventh of January would be known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.
Legacy: Everyone from Aretha Franklin to Tina Turner have cited her as an early influence, as much for her exuberant church-driven singing and playing as just for her raw talent. In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp with her likeness and she was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
*In 1973 the Dixie Hummingbirds backed Paul Simon on his tune, “Loves Me Like A Rock.”
**A musical called Marie and Rosetta based on their relationship played off-Broadway in 2016.
Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; BBC Four documentary, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll