Known as a pioneer of 20th-century music, “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973) was a singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist.
She was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, to parents who were cotton pickers. Tharpe began performing at the age of four, billed as “Little Rosetta, 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 in the South and after her family moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, she first played blues and jazz in private, while performing gospel music in public settings. Tharpe’s Gospel style reflected those secular influences. Listeners said she bent notes the way blues and jazz artists did and picked guitar like Memphis Minnie.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Tharpe attained great popularity with her gospel recordings that were a mixture of spiritual lyrics and early rock and roll accompaniment. As the first recording artist to impact the music charts with spiritual recordings, Tharpe became the first superstar of gospel music and became known as “the original soul sister”. Tharpe’s witty, unique style left a lasting mark on more conventional gospel artists, such as Ira Tucker, Sr., of the Dixie Hummingbirds. Some conservative churchgoers were opposed to her singing, but she never left gospel music.
Tharpe’s 1944 hit “Down By The Riverside” was selected for the American Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2004, with the citation stating that it captured her “spirited guitar playing” and “unique vocal style” which were an influence on early rhythm and blues performers, as well as gospel, jazz and rock artists.
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Singers and musicians ranging from Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, have identified Rosetta Tharpe as an important influence on them. Both Little Richard and Johnny Cash referred to Tharpe as their favorite singer since childhood.
In 2007, Rosetta Tharpe was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2008, January 11 was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania and a Pennsylvania historical marker was approved for placement at her home in the Yorktown neighborhood of Philadelphia. The PBS series American Masters featured her story in the opening program of their 2013 season.
When the book “Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe” by Gayle Wald came out, The New York Time Book Review stated:
Shout, Sister, Shout! is the first biography of this trailblazing performer who influenced scores of popular musicians, from Elvis Presley and Little Richard to Eric Clapton and Etta James. Tharpe … produced music that crossed boundaries, defied classification, and disregarded the social and cultural norms of the age; incorporating elements of gospel, blues, jazz, popular ballads, folk, country, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. Tharpe went electric early on, captivating both white and black audiences in the North and South, in the U.S. and internationally, with her charisma and skill. People who saw her perform claimed she made that guitar talk.
Wald’s eye-opening biography, which draws on the memories of more than a hundred people who knew or worked with Tharpe, introduces us to this vibrant, essential, yet nearly forgotten musical heavyweight … Her story forever alters our understanding of both women in rock and U.S. popular music.”
Beacon Press’ paperback edition of the book is still available.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s vast contribution to American musical history will not fade away.