Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973) was a pioneering Gospel singer, songwriter and recording artist who attained great popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and early rock accompaniment. She became the first great recording star of Gospel music in the late 1930s and also became known as the "original soul sister" of recorded music.
Willing to cross the line between sacred and secular by performing her inspirational music of 'light' in the 'darkness' of the nightclubs and concert halls with big bands behind her, her witty, idiosyncratic style also left a lasting mark on more conventional gospel artists, such as Ira Tucker, Sr., of the Dixie Hummingbirds. While she offended some conservative churchgoers with her forays into the world of pop music, she never left gospel music.
Rosetta also crossed over to secular music in other ways. After marrying COGIC preacher Thomas Thorpe (from which "Tharpe" is a misspelling) in 1934 and moving to New York City, she recorded four sides with Decca Records backed by "Lucky" Millinder's jazz orchestra. Her records caused an immediate furor: many churchgoers were shocked by the mixture of sacred and secular music, but secular audiences loved them. Appearances in John Hammond's 1938 extravaganza "From Spirituals To Swing", at the Cotton Club and Café Society and with Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman made her even more popular. Songs like "This Train" and "Rock Me", which combined gospel themes with bouncy up-tempo arrangements, became smash hits among audiences with little previous exposure to gospel music.
Tharpe continued recording during World War II, one of only two gospel artists able to record V-discs for troops overseas. Her song "Strange Things Happening Every Day", recorded in 1944 with Sammy Price, Decca's house boogie woogie pianist, showcased her virtuosity as a guitarist and her witty lyrics and delivery. It was also the first gospel song to make Billboard's "race records" Top Ten--something that Sister Rosetta Tharpe accomplished several more times in her career.
After the war Decca paired her with Marie Knight, a Sanctified shouter with a strong contralto and a more subdued style than Tharpe. Their hit "Up Above My Head" showed both of them to great advantage: Knight provided the response to Tharpe in traditional call and response format, then took the role that would have been assigned to a bass in a male quartet after Tharpe's solo. They toured the gospel circuit for a number of years, during which Tharpe was so popular that she attracted 25,000 paying customers to her wedding to her manager Russell Morrison (her third marriage), followed by a vocal performance, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in 1951.
Their popularity took a sudden downturn, however, when they recorded several blues songs in the early 1950s. Knight attempted afterwards to cross over to popular music, while Tharpe remained in the church, but rebuffed by many of her former fans. Retreating to Europe, Tharpe gradually returned to the gospel circuit, although at nowhere near her former celebrity. In April - May 1964, at the height of a surge of popular interest in the blues, she toured the UK as part of the "Amercian Folk Blues and Gsopel Caravan", alongside Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, Ranson Knowling and Little Willie Smith, Reverend Gary Davis, Cousin Joe and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Tharpe was introduced on stage and accompanied on piano by Cousin Joe Pleasant.
Tharpe's performances were curtailed by a stroke in 1970, after which she lost the use of her legs. She died in 1973 after another stroke, on the eve of a scheduled recording session. She was buried in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in an unmarked grave. In 2008, a concert was held to raise funds for a marker for her grave and January 11 was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania.
Brixton band Alabama 3 (of Sopranos theme fame) named a track after Sister Rosetta on their debut album Exile on Coldharbour Lane. UK indie rock band The Noisettes released the single "Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit)" off their 2007 album What's the Time Mr. Wolf? Also in 2007, singers Alison Krauss and Robert Plant recorded a duet version of the song "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us", written by Sam Phillips who released her version of the song in 2008. Michelle Shocked opened her live gospel album ToHeavenURide (2007) with "Strange Things Happening Every Day", along with a tribute to Tharpe.