Today we honor and celebrate one of the most influential musicians of the 20th Century. Rosetta Nubin was born in Arkansas in 1915. She began singing on gospel stages with her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, at the age of four. By six she was playing guitar and billed as “Little Rosetta Nubin, the singing and guitar playing miracle.”
Guitar playing women were rare at the time, and a black woman as a lead guitarist was unheard of. Undaunted, she continued to play and sing when she and her mother moved to Chicago. In 1934 she married a preacher named Thomas Thorpe. Although the marriage was brief, she adopted a version of his surname as her stage name, playing and singing as Sister Rosetta Tharpe for the rest of her career.
Tharpe loved gospel music but chafed at the strict rules under which it was usually performed. She took her gospel repertoire into secular nightclubs, revving up the songs with her distinctive guitar work. Blending urban blues, traditional folk, and swing into her own style, Tharpe created a sound that has led to her being called the Godmother of Rock’n’Roll. Secular audiences flocked to her shows, but the gospel establishment began to spurn her.
Working with Lucky Millinder, she recorded four sides for Decca, some of the first gospel on a major label. These hits raised her profile, and after Millinder became too controlling she moved on. She worked with Cab Calloway and John Hammond and was one of the few African-American performers to record “V-Discs” for overseas troops during World War II. In 1945, she broke through to the big time with her first solo hit, Strange Things Happening Every Day. It was the first gospel hit on the Billboard R&B charts, going all the way to #2. The song’s blend of styles and powerful guitar work has led to it being one of a handful of songs regularly referred to as the first Rock’n’Roll record.
She recorded a number of other groundbreaking songs including Down By the Riverside, Up Above My Head, and Didn’t It Rain. As rock and country began to take over the airwaves, her lifelong musical tension took its toll and her career faded. She enjoyed a resurgence in Great Britain in the 60s during the blues boom there, touring widely with other black American singers.
Although married a number of times, Tharpe was at least bisexual; many close friends have described her as a “secret lesbian,” living out the sham marriages to protect her career and personal safety. In every other way she was a determined, outspoken woman who pushed musical boundaries, spreading joy on her own powerful terms–she so deserves to be celebrated.
She died in 1973 of a stroke following complications from diabetes. With changing tastes in music, her work was largely unknown for decades. Fortunately, the past ten years have seen a resurgence in interest in her work, with NPR and the BBC doing features on her work. PBS highlighted her in the opening show of the 2013 season of American Masters.
Many musicians have credited her influence. Little Richard says she was his favorite singer as a child. She heard him sing his first secular show and invited him onstage for her performance, something he considers a highlight of his life. Johnny Cash listed her as a favorite singer and guitar influence. Her electric guitar work on That’s All was specifically mentioned by both Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley as an early influence. Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Isaac Hayes all describe her as a significant factor in the shape of their careers. It’s easy to say that both Rock’n’Roll and R&B owe a significant debt to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.