Sister Rosetta TharpeJun 17th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1921-1973 Sister Rosetta Tharpe rose from the Sanctified tradition of church music to become one of the most famous performers of her time, bridging gospel and blues genres, and black and white audiences, with an inspirational vocal and guitar style all her own. In so doing, she pioneered the new form of pop-gospel music and created the foundation for much of modern blues, rhythm and blues, and even rock and soul music, inspiring countless contemporary artists with her unique artistry and sound.
Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, on March 20, 1921. Her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, was a missionary traveling the southern gospel circuit, and a “shouter” (inspirational singer) in the classic church tradition who was known as “Mother Bell.” Tharpe was a musical child prodigy: she had mastered the guitar by her sixth birthday, and began performing with her mother on the circuit. She sang such religious staples as “The Day is Past and Gone” and “I Looked Down the Line” during early childhood at church conventions and assemblies.
Like so many other African American families of the era, Tharpe and her mother joined the northern migration to Chicago, then as now a center for black culture and the evolving form of blues music. Tharpe was doubtless influenced by this urban cultural scene, as both her singing and guitar playing styles began showing a strong blues inspiration. Coupled with her rich vocal vibrato and gospel roots, the effect was compelling. The sense of reaching out and over to the secular world was magnified by her evident showmanship and glamorous appeal. Tharpe signed with Decca in 1938 for her first recording contract, and was an immediate star. Early cuts included classic gospel songs by the famous Thomas Dorsey such as “This Train” and “Rock Me,” and were instant best-selling hits.
Her performing career rocketed her into the company of mainstream musical stars, and soon Tharpe was sharing the stage with the likes of Cab Calloway. She was a featured artist in the legendary “Spirituals to Swing” concert held at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1939, appearing there with Sidney Bechet, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman; and she played such famous music venues of the era as Café Society and the Cotton Club. She continued recording in the straight gospel tradition with songs such as “Beams of Heaven,” “End of My Journey,” and “Precious Lord,” but also began broadening her appeal to an increasingly white and secular audience with pop arrangements of up-tempo spirituals including “Down by the Riverside” and “Didn’t It Rain.” Tharpe’s popularity during World War II brought her the distinction of recording “V-Discs,” specially intended for the troops overseas (only one other black gospel act was so acknowledged). She toured nationally with such famous artists as The Dixie Hummingbirds. At that time, Billboard magazine (which compiled the top-selling records lists) kept a separate chart called the “Race Records Top Ten.” Tharpe’s 1944 collaboration with the boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price, “Strange Things Happen Every Day,” further broadened her appeal and earned a spot on the list. Although this was unusual for a gospel artist, it wasn’t the last time Sister Rosetta would find herself so honored. She also began to incorporate more swing music elements in her mix.
Birth of the Blues
Beginning in 1946, Tharpe recorded and performed with a Sanctified shouter based in Newark, New Jersey, Madame Marie Knight. Knight had a relatively unadorned voice and simple style, which served as a perfect contrast and complement to Tharpe’s theatricality. They scored a hit with their first recording, “Up Above My Head,” and parlayed that achievement into highly successful tours along the gospel circuit, playing to large and enthusiastic audiences. They recorded other ecstatic versions of classic songs, such as “Didn’t It Rain.” At one concert in Washington, DC at Griffith Stadium, the duo drew a crowd of some 27,000 rapturous fans.
Then, continuing along the path of musical inclusion and secularization that marked Tharpe’s evolution from early on, she and Knight recorded several “straight ahead” blues songs in an orthodox style in the early 1950s. Their gospel-based loyal audience was shocked and scandalized by the result. Knight went on to make a career in purely secular music, and so was relatively unscathed by the controversy. Tharpe, however, continued to perceive herself as essentially a gospel singer, and as a result, the effects were dramatic. Her popularity was deeply damaged, her record sales declined, and her live performances became less frequent. Gospel purists seemed to be personally offended by her transgression. Tharpe retreated to Europe where she spent over a year touring and performing while waiting for the controversy to subside.
She returned to the United States and began a gradual comeback. Although she would never recapture her former fame, in 1960, Tharpe played Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater with headliners James Cleveland and the Caravans, and enjoyed a viable if diminished career. She continued performing and touring after a major stroke in 1970, but died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 9, 1973. Her legacy as a seminal artist in the development of black and popular musical styles is profound, and best embodied by a tribute concert and CD release entitled “Shout, Sister, Shout: a Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” This musical homage included performances by Marie Knight, Janis Ian, Maria Muldaur, Joan Osbourne, Bonnie Raitt, Michelle Shocked, and Sweet Honey in the Rock. Tharpe was also memorialized in two segments of the television film The Blues, a PBS TV series, executive produced by Martin Scorsese.