Picture this: Cotton Plant, Arkansas, on March 20, 1915, where a musical legend was born. Rosetta Nubin, affectionately known as “Little Rosetta,” came into this world as the daughter of Katie Bell Nubin and Willis Atkins. Her father’s role remains shrouded in mystery, but her mother, Katie, was a remarkable figure—a singer, mandolin player, deaconess-missionary, and women’s speaker in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).
The COGIC, founded in 1897, embraced rhythmic musical expression, dancing in praise, and empowering women to sing and teach in church—a radical concept at the time. Encouraged by her mother, Rosetta’s journey into music began at a tender age of six when she picked up the guitar and started singing. Her prodigious talent quickly became apparent, earning her a reputation as a musical prodigy.
By 1921, six-year-old Little Rosetta embarked on a journey alongside her mother as a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe. Billed as a “singing and guitar playing miracle,” they delivered performances that blended sermons with gospel concerts, captivating audiences across the American South.
In the mid-1920s, Rosetta and her mother settled in Chicago, Illinois. They found themselves performing religious concerts at the Roberts Temple, COGIC, and occasionally traveling for church conventions nationwide. Rosetta’s remarkable guitar skills set her apart in an era when prominent black female guitarists were a rare sight.
In 1934, at the age of nineteen, she married Thomas Thorpe, a COGIC preacher who often accompanied her and her mother on their tours. Although the marriage lasted only a few years, Rosetta adopted a variation of her husband’s surname as her stage name, becoming Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Despite subsequent marriages, she performed under this name for the rest of her life.
In 1938, Rosetta Tharpe embarked on a groundbreaking recording journey with Decca Records on October 31st. Backed by Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra, her recordings, including “Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “My Man and I,” and “The Lonesome Road,” became instant hits. She was hailed as one of the first commercially successful gospel recording artists.
What’s intriguing is that these songs faced resistance in some religious circles due to their blend of gospel-based lyrics and a secular-sounding musical style. However, secular audiences couldn’t get enough of her groundbreaking music. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a trailblazer, performing gospel music for secular nightclub audiences alongside blues and jazz musicians and dancers—a feat considered unusual at the time.
Even in nightclub performances, where she sang gospel songs backed by scantily clad showgirls, Sister Rosetta Tharpe continued to defy conventions. Her audacity led to her being shunned by some in the gospel community, who couldn’t accept her unconventional approach.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was not only a fearless performer but also a fierce competitor. She engaged in guitar battles at the Apollo Theater, proving that playing the guitar was not the sole domain of men.
Throughout World War II, she continued recording and even had the distinction of being one of only two gospel artists to record V-discs—recordings that were shipped and played for US troops overseas. In 1944, she recorded “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” considered by many as the first rock and roll record.
Her career took another fascinating turn when she joined forces with Marie Knight after seeing her perform at a Mahalia Jackson concert in New York. Together, they toured the gospel circuit and recorded hits like “Up Above My Head” and “Gospel Train.” However, Marie Knight eventually ventured into her own career in 1949.
In 1952, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Red Foley recorded the B-side “Have a Little Talk with Jesus,” marking it as the first interracial duet recorded in the United States—a groundbreaking moment in music history.
Her influence extended overseas when she embarked on a month-long tour in the UK in 1957, led by British trombonist Chris Barber. In 1964, she embarked on a two-month European tour as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan, sharing the stage with luminaries like Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, and Reverend Gary Davis.
One iconic performance etched in history is her rainy-day concert at a disused railway station in Manchester in May 1964, recorded by Granada Television. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s music transcended barriers, electrifying audiences on opposite platforms—one for the band and the other for the audience.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar mastery combined melody-driven urban blues, traditional folk arrangements, and a pulsating swing that laid the foundation for rock and roll. Her influence resonated with legends like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Isaac Hayes. She left an indelible mark, earning her induction into the Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll Halls of Fame.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gospel trailblazer who dared to rock the world, left a lasting legacy—a testament to her fearless spirit, remarkable talent, and unwavering dedication to music.