Sister Rosetta Tharpe
(March 20, 1915 â€“ Oct 9, 1973)
was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist. A one-of-a-kind pioneer of 20th-century music, Tharpe attained great popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings that were a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and early rock and roll accompaniment. As the first recording artist to impact the music charts with her spiritual recordings, Tharpe became the first superstar of gospel music and also became known as "the original soul sister." She was a treasured early influence on iconic figures such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Johnny Cash.
Willing to cross the line between sacred and secular by performing her inspirational music of 'light' in the 'darkness' of the nightclubs and concert halls with big bands behind her, Tharpe's witty, idiosyncratic style also left a lasting mark on more conventional gospel artists, such as Ira Tucker, Sr., of the Dixie Hummingbirds. While she offended some conservative churchgoers with her forays into the world of pop music, she never left gospel music.
She was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, United States, to parents Katie Bell Nubin and Willis Atkins who were cotton pickers. Little is known of her father, although it is known that he was a singer. In 1921 Bell left Atkins to become a travelling evangelist for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).
Tharpe began performing at the age of four, billed as "Little Rosetta Nubin, the singing and guitar playing miracle", accompanying her mother who played mandolin and preached at tent revivals throughout the South. Exposed to both blues and jazz both in the South and after her family moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, she played blues and jazz in private, while performing gospel music in public settings. Her unique style reflected those secular influences: she bent notes the way that blues and rock artists did and picked guitar like Memphis Minnie.
Tharpe also crossed over to secular music in other ways. After marrying COGIC preacher Thomas Thorpe (from which "Tharpe" is a misspelling) in 1934. The marriage was not a happy one, with Thorpe having been described as "a tyrant". In 1938 Tharpe left her husband and moved with her mother to New York City.