Sister Rosetta Tharpe
(1915 – 1973)
Both a Gospel superstar and a popular Rhythm and Blues singer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe achieved widespread popularity in the 30s and 40s, with a high-energy performing style that marks her as a pioneering early influence on Rock and Roll. A powerful singer, a distinctive songwriter and an expansive, effervescent personality, Tharpe made exuberant music that drew heavy inspiration from the Blues, often combining spiritual lyrics with raucous, earthy music, while exhibiting a level of showmanship and charisma that was uncommon in the Gospel field at the time. Tharpe was also an influential early exponent of the electric guitar.
An Arkansas native, Tharpe was born to parents who were farm laborers. She started singing and playing church music practically from the crib, and from the age of four traveled as a perfomer with an evangelical road show, billed as a child prodigy. She moved to Chicago and then New York City, cutting her first Gospel recordings there in 1938. The records had significant commercial success, their earthy, R&B-like sound appealing to crossover audiences even as it generated controversy among Gospel purists.
That dichotomy continued as Tharpe’s popularity spread, and she performed alongside the likes of Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman and Lucky Millinder with a repertoire that balanced sacred and secular material. In the mid-'40s, her "Strange Things Happening Every Day" made the Top Ten of Billboard's "race records" chart, which was unheard of for a Gospel act. Tharpe would repeat that achievement several more times, sometimes in partnership with Gospel singer Madame Marie Knight, with whom she recorded and toured for several years.
Tharpe and Knight became extremely popular on the church circuit, but the duo outraged much of their Gospel following when they began cutting straight Blues material in the early 50s, and the resulting controversy so damaged Tharpe's career that she spent much of the rest of that decade working in Europe. By the 60s, the furor had died down enough for Tharpe to return to performing regularly in America, which she did until suffering a stroke in 1970. She died three years later, but her vintage work continues to be embraced by succeeding generations of Gospel, Blues and Rock and Roll fans.