Perusing my parents record collection back in the day, I remember albums by the Platters, Dinah Washington, Marion Anderson, Brooke Benton, Ray Charles…
And Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Listening to those on the old mono Console Stereo probably formed my appreciation for, and developed my tastes in music.
She influenced Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and countless others, but Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a legend in her own right.
The woman featured is none other than Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” who has one of the more enviable legacies in music. Her musical disciples and descendants reads like a who’s-who of legendary ‘50s and ‘60s figures, her personal history bears the earmarks of a classic outlaw, and her music is richly powerful and evocative—soul-stirring in the truest sense of the term. What a legacy that is—but that legacy has long been obscured.
For decades, fans and critics tended to gloss over pre-1955 music as compared to the music of the late 20th century, and the fact that she was a gospel star likely places her in a certain niche in the minds of the general public. While names like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis became etched into the culture’s collective consciousness, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was rarely mentioned in the same breath—or even as an obvious forbear—to her rock ‘n’ roll offspring who would carry the genre into the mainstream.
Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, was a singer, preacher, and mandolin player for the Church of God In Christ (COGIC) who encouraged little Rosetta to play and sing for services. A clear prodigy, it was through her association with COGIC that Rosetta would evolve into one of the most amazing gospel performers of her time. It was a church that believed in musical expression and was progressive in its view of gender roles within the church, encouraging women ministers and musicians. After moving to Chicago, little Rosetta and her mother became fixtures within the city’s gospel music scene.
At 19 years old, she would marry a minister named Thomas A. Thorpe in 1934, but the union would be short-lived. Though they divorced, Rosetta would keep his last name as her stage name—slightly altering “Thorpe” to “Tharpe.”
Upon signing with Decca Records, Tharpe issued singles that are instant smashes. Her versions of Thomas Dorsey tunes like “This Train” made her a household name—in particular, her reworked version of “Hide Me In Thy Bosom” (retitled “This Train”) was a breakthrough for her as a recording artist. Backed by Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra, the song raised her visibility with secular and white audiences and set the stage for a remarkable run that saw her perform at Carnegie Hall (as part of John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” showcase) and record music with Cab Calloway and the Jordanaires. She also made recordings for U.S. troops stationed overseas; Tharpe was one of only two black gospel artists included on these “V Discs”—along with the Dixie Hummingbirds. But it was her song “Strange Things Happening Every Day” that proved a major leap forward for both her career and gospel music; it was the first gospel hit on the Billboard R&B charts, peaking at #2.
She would team up with gospel singer Marie Knight, whom she’d seen perform in Harlem with Mahalia Jackson, and the two would tour together throughout the 1940s as “The Saint (Knight) and the Sinner (Tharpe).” By 1951, she’d become so popular that 25,000 people paid to watch her wedding to her third husband, Russell Morrison, in Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. That same year, Tharpe and Knight would make an ill-fated attempt to forge a career in straight-ahead blues. …Read the Rest Here...