Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first black gospel music star of the 1930’s. Born Rosetta Nubin Tharpe in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, she was the first gospel artist to record for a major label and the first to cross to secular music. Tharpe started performing “Jesus is on the Main Line” at age four before touring with her mother. She left an impression with fans of her music because she had mastered the guitar. Not many black women played the guitar back then.
Tharpe played gigs with her mother, who played the mandolin. She chose to follow in the footsteps of artists such as Arizona Dranes and Florence Price. She honed her skills enough to play along with greats like Lucky Milliner and Cab Calloway later in her career. In the church, she and her mother had joined the Holiness movement of the Pentecostal denomination that would later form the Church of God in Christ.
After pursuing marriage in New York City, Rosetta married Thomas Thorpe. After their short-lived marriage, she kept her last name and altered the “o” to an “a” for a stage name. A few years later, she remarried to Fosh Allen, which also ended in divorce. The third marriage proved her value to beloved fans; 25,000 people paid to see her third marriage to her manager, Russell Morrison in 1951.
With success as an independent artist, she was soon signed with Decca Records in 1938. Two of her hits were “This Train” and “Rock Me.” She became a crossover artist and a favorite for many years. She reached a pinnacle in her success on December 23, 1938 when she played Carnegie Hall. She, along with the Dixie Hummingbirds, another gospel group, were the only gospel acts to record “V-Discs” for U.S. troops overseas.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe experienced a downfall when the evolution of gospel music and the upswing of pop ensued. The popularity of her music declined, then in 1970 she suffered a stroke that resulted in a leg amputation. It caused Tharpe to develop speech difficulties, but she never gave up on performing, despite difficult odds.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe died in on October 9, 1973 in Philadelphia.
Learn more about the life of Sister Rosetta Tharpe on “American Masters Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll” — premiering nationwide Friday, February 22 at 9pm on PBS (check local listings) in honor of Black History Month and the 40th anniversary of Tharpe’s death.