Sister Rosetta Tharpe influenced many with her hot guitar and hard gospel — while outraging others in the church for the same.
She was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant on March 20, 1915 — some sources say 1921. Her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, or Mother Bell, was a traveling evangelist and a singer in her own right who later recorded with Dizzy Gillespie. Young Rosetta grew up singing in church, and by age 6 was playing the guitar.
A move to New York City in 1938 saw her performing at the Cotton Club Revuewith Cab Calloway. By that October, Tharpe recorded her first 78s for Decca Records. Tharpe’s very good year culminated in December with a spot in the historic “Spirituals to Swing”’ concert at Carnegie Hall organized by John Hammond, a high-profile showcase billed as “An Evening of American Negro Music.” The Woodruff County native performed with pianist Albert Ammons but the flawed recordings did not appear on the album set when it finally was released more than 20 years later; she did made the 1999 box set.
Tellingly, at Tharpe’s first recording session, she performed both religious and secular material — a move that, combined with her performing in nightclubs, flamboyant personality and outrageous guitar skills, drew criticism from some gospel circles. So did her 1941 filming of three “music video” soundies with Lucky Millinder and his orchestra. Imagine what was thought about recordings such as her 1942 single with Millinder, “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.” But Tharpe said she considered it a compliment to be called a jazz singer.
Tharpe’s ability to connect with both secular and religious audiences only grew during the 1940s. Tharpe was one of only two black gospel acts torecord V-Discs for Allied troops during World War II. She also recorded for Armed Forces Radio, including a 1943 broadcast with her contemporary from nearby Brinkley, Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five.
Tharpe was said to have given Little Richard an early boost, inviting him onstage at Georgia’s Macon City Auditorium, where he sold soda pop.
She influenced many, from Johnny Cash growing up in Blytheville to Isaac Hayes, who said Tharpe’s electric guitar was the first he ever heard. Tharpe’s wild guitar playing had a profound influence on more than one generation of performers in blues, jazz, and gospel — and, most notably, rock ’n’ roll.
Through the 1960s, Tharpe continued to record and tour, and was especiallypopular in Europe. But she suffered a stroke there in the fall of 1970. Althoughdiabetes forced the amputation of a leg, she returned to performing in 1972and 1973.
Tharpe died from another stroke on October 9, 1973, in Philadelphia — theday of a planned recording session. Whether solo or with a big band, performing gospel or secular music, Tharpe was always inspirational.
• “Rock Me”
• “Two Little Fishes And Five Loaves of Bread”
• “I Want A Tall Skinny Papa”
• “That’s All”
• “Didn’t It Rain”
• “This Train”
• “Bury Me Beneath The Willow”
• “Merry Golden Tree”
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