Born: March 20, 1915 | Died: October 9, 1973 Primary Instrument: Guitar
Arkansas native Rosetta Nubin Tharpe was one of gospel music’s first superstars, the first gospel performer to record for a major record label (Decca), and an early crossover from gospel to secular music.
Rosetta Nubin was born in Cotton Plant (Woodruff County) on March 20, 1915, to Katie Bell Nubin, an evangelist, singer, and mandolin player for the Church of God in Christ. No mention is found of her father. Nubin began performing at age four, playing guitar and singing “Jesus is on the Main Line.” By age six, Nubin appeared regularly with her mother, performing a mix of gospel and secular music styles that would eventually make her famous. As a youth, she could sing and keep on pitch and hold a melody. Her vocal qualities, however, paled beside her abilities on the guitarshe played individual tones, melodies, and riffs instead of just strumming chords. This talent was all the more remarkable because, at the time, few African-American women played guitar.
Nubin’s guitar style was influenced by her mother’s mandolin playing, pianist Arizona Dranes, and composer Florence Price, with whom Rosetta studied in Cotton Plant. She also sang the popular hymns of the day, including the compositions of bluesman turned gospel musician, Thomas A. Dorsey. Indeed, elements of blues are readily apparent in Nubin’s guitar styling. Later, Nubin’s music would be influenced by her work with jazz greats Lucky Milliner and Cab Calloway.
Billed as the “singing and guitar-playing miracle,” Nubin was an added attraction at her mother’s church services. Both mother and daughter worked as members of an evangelistic troupe that worked throughout the South before arriving in Chicago in the late 1920s. There they became part of the growing Holiness movement, a late nineteenth-century offshoot of the Pentecostal denomination which, in the 1890s, led to the formation of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and other new religious groups.
After several years of working with her mother and on the advice of several Chicago promoters, Nubin moved to New York in the mid-1930s. She married minister Thomas A. Thorpe in 1934. The marriage was short-lived; after their divorce, Rosetta kept the last name, changing the spelling to “Tharpe” for use as her stage name. Later, in the 1940s, Tharpe was married a second time, to promoter Fosh Allen.
Tharpe was signed to Decca Records in 1938 and was successful immediately. Versions of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “This Train” and “Hide Me in Thy Bosom,” released as “Rock Me,” were smash hits featuring Tharpe on guitar and Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra as accompaniment. These releases started a trend for Tharpe, who recorded both traditional numbers for her gospel fan base and up-tempo, secular-influenced tunes for her growing white audience.
The popularity of her singles led to Tharpe’s inclusion in John Hammond’s black music extravaganza, “From Spirituals to Swing,” held in Carnegie Hall in New York City on December 23, 1938. After this well-publicized event, Tharpe went on a concert tour throughout the northeast. She also recorded with Cab Calloway to some success but fared better with “Trouble in Mind,” “Shout, Sister, Shout,” and “That’s All”all recorded with Lucius “Lucky” Millinder’s jazz orchestra in 1941 and 1942. Tharpe’s popularity was so great that she was only one of two black gospel actsthe other was the Dixie Hummingbirdsto record “V-Discs” for U.S. troops overseas. In the late 1940s, Tharpe returned to more strictly religious songs, recording “Didn’t It Rain” (1947) and “Up Above My Head” (1947) with Marie Knight. From 1944 to 1951, her main accompanist was Samuel “Sammy” Blythe Price, a boogie-woogie pianist from Texas. His trio backed her on “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” a top ten race record.
Tharpe continued her success in the religious market. Such was Tharpe’s popularity that on July 3, 1951, 25,000 people paid to see Tharpe’s third marriage to Russell Morrison, her manager, in a ceremony held at Washington DC’s Griffith Stadium.
Tharpe and Marie Knight parted ways after unsuccessfully trying to enter the blues music market. As a result of the foray into the pop music market, Tharpe’s popularity waned; soon her concert dates dropped off, and she lost her recording contract with Decca. Tharpe kept working and had signed with Mercury Records by the late 1950s. She first toured Europe in 1957 and made return trips in the 1960s, making several live recordings while overseas. Although she never realized her comeback, Tharpe continued to perform. A stroke in 1970 necessitated a leg amputation and caused speech difficulties, but it only slowed her down. Tharpe continued to tour and perform until her death in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 9, 1973.
Tharpe’s music and influence continue years after her death. Her songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash spoke of her impact on his music. In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Rosetta Tharpe postage stamp. In 2003, the album “Shout, Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe” was released, with versions of Tharpe’s songs performed by female artists including Maria Muldaur, Odetta, and Marcia Ball.