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sister rosetta tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

b. Rosetta Nubin (a.k.a. Rosetta Atkins Tharpe Morrison), 20th March 1915, Cotton Plant, Arkansas, U.S.A.

d. 9th October 1973, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Sister Rosetta Harpe (a.k.a. 'the Godmother Of Rock N' Roll') hailed from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, near the Mississippi River, and was the daughter of Katie Bell Nubin and Willis Atkins, her mother being involved with the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).

Her parents were both cotton pickers.

Katie Bell Nubin

katie bell nubin

Her father was a notable singer, as was her mother, who encouraged anyone who would listen to her to attend church, and was a multi instrumentalist in her own right.

Born in 1915, Rosetta was to become one of Gospel music's superstars during the Thirties and Forties.

She influenced the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley in the coming decades with her own unique style of guitar playing.

In 1921, her mother left her husband and she and a young Rosetta relocated to Chicago where they began attending the Roberts Temple Church Of God In Christ.

It was at the age of six, she began performing in the church. By the age of nine, she was performing vocally, playing the guitar and the piano.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Throughout her teenage years, her mother took her from city to city to perform in various churches, which slowly built a popularity for her unique style of singing and guitar playing.

In 1934, Rosetta's mother married her to a preacher called Thomas J. Thorpe, who after four years of mistreatment, left him and took herself and her mother off to New York, where she landed a recording deal with Decca Records, following a successful stint at the Cotton Club.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

rosetta with katie bell

Performing to predominantly white audiences, the material she was provided with was very secular, and had no religious content whatsoever, something which raised eyebrows at the time.

To combat the dilemma, Rosetta decided to sing the secular music she had been asked to perform, as well as sing Gospel in Church, breaking many rules.

Sister Rosetta and Lucky Millinder

rosetta with lucky millinder in 1944

On the 31st of October 1938, she recorded four sides with Decca Records backed by 'Lucky' Millinder's jazz orchestra.

Her first single for the imprint was a song entitled 'Rock Me', a re-interpretation of a Gospel song, which became a hit.

A more controversial song 'Tall Skinny Papa' highlighted her binding to her recording contract agreements, and less to her own personal artistic wishes, however, the song also charted.

Other songs included 'Lonesome Road', 'This Train', along with more Gospel orientated material.

Rosetta appeared in John Hammond's 'From Spirituals To Swing' later that year, at the Cotton Club and Café Society and with Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman increased her popularity further.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

By this time she had become Gospel Music's first superstar.

Rosetta recorded during World War II, one of only two gospel artists able to record V-discs for troops overseas.

She toured as the headline act for herself and the Dixie Hummingbirds throughout the Forties with her group The Rosettes.

Decca 78Decca 78

strange things happen every day - 1944 / don't take everybody to be your friend - 1946

Brunswick 78Brunswick 78

didn't it rain - 1947 / precious memories - 1947

She recorded 'Strange Things Happening Every Day', in 1944 with Sammy Price, Decca's in house pianist, which became the first gospel song to make Billboard's Top Ten.

The song reflected her concerns regarding the segregated society which continued after the Second World War.

The record, later, was credited in some circles, as being the First rock and roll record.

Marie & RosettaMarie & Rosetta

with marie knight

At this time, following several relationships with men and women, Decca teamed Rosetta up with the singer Marie Knight, (following a request by Rosetta, who was impressed by the singer).

The duo were able to tour as a duo, with both being multi instrumentalists, and they charted with 'Up Above My Head, I Hear Music In The Air' and toured the gospel circuit for a number of years.

In 1950, Marie's mother, and two small children were all killed in a fire, whilst the duo were performing in California. This event effectively halted the careers of the two women as a duo.

As a solo performer, Rosetta's popularity continued, and two promoters conceived the idea that Rosetta should be publicly married at the Griffith Baseball Stadium in Washington, D.C. in 1951.

Russell Morrison

russell morrison

Wedding Ceremony

wedding ceremony lp cover

The event attracted 25,000 paying customers to the wedding of Rosetta and her manager Russell Morrison (her third marriage, the second being to Forrest Allen), which was followed by a concert featuring herself, along with an album release.

At around this time, her popularity began to wane. Rock and Roll had become the chosen music of the younger generation.

Rosetta and Russell

rosetta and russell

Compounding matters, Russell was rumoured to be having affairs, however, Rosetta chose to remain his wife for the next couple of decades.

Whilst the likes of Elvis Presley had by now picked up on the playing and performing style laid down by Rosetta in previous years (and were making the genre their own, interpreting it into Rock and Roll), Rosetta relocated to Philadelphia with her mother.

Chris & Rosetta

with chris barber

In 1957, Rosetta was contacted by the U.K. Jazz musician Chris Barber, who asked her to relocate to Europe for a month for a tour.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Rosetta, became a renaissance woman and artist, touring the U.K. again in April and May 1964, as part of the 'American Folk Blues and Gospel Caravan', capitalising on the huge influence that Blues music had become on the U.K. Pop Scene at the time.

Rosetta toured with Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, Cousin Joe Peasants, Ranson Knowling, Little Willie Smith, Reverend Gary Davis, Cousin Joe, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

In 1967, Rosetta performed at the Newport Folk Festival.

Tragedy struck Rosetta's life in 1968, when her mother, Katie Bell passed away, which led to a period of depression, compounded with the news that she was suffering from diabetes.

In 1970, Rosetta suffered a stroke, following which she had a leg amputated as a result of complications from diabetes.

She died in 1973 following another stroke, on the eve of a scheduled recording session.

Rosetta Tharpe was laid to rest in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in an unmarked grave.

In 2007 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.


In 2008, a concert was held to raise funds for a marker for her grave (which was placed at her grave later that year), and the 11th of January was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Several artists have stated that Rosetta Tharpe was a huge influence on their careers. These included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin and Little Richard.

Real Player


Gospel Train (Universal Records 1956)

Sister Rosetta Tharpe / The Sam Price Trio (Decca Records 1958)

Gospel Train Vol.2 (Lection Records 1960)

Live In 1960 (Southland Records 1960)

Sister On Tour (Verve Records 1962)

Live In Paris - 1964 (French Concerts Records 1964)

Live At The Hot Club De France (Milan Records 1966)

In Concert (Nesak International Records 1995)

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