Glorious Gospel

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was an American gospel singer, songwriter and guitarist who started performing together with her mother as a child. In the 1930s and 1940s, her gospel recordings became very popular and she is considered one of the first recording stars of gospel music.

Tharpe is noted for her unique and groundbreaking blend of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniments that appealed not just to traditional gospel audiences but to fans of rythm-and-bluse and rock-and-roll as well. Her career helped push gospel music into the mainstream and heralded the rise of pop-gospel.

Her 1944 recording of “Strange Things Happening Every Day” together with Sammy price on piano, bass and drums was the first gospel record to reach spot no. 2 on the Billboard Race Records chart (the foregoer of today’s R&B chart).

Later in her life, she was often referred to as “The Godmother of Rock and Roll” and “The Original Soul Sister”.

Short facts

Birth: March 20, 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, USA

Death: October 9, 1973, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Occupation: Musician

Instruments: Vocals, Guitar

Genres: Gospel, Blues, Rythm & Blues, Jazz

Years active: 1919-1973

Examples of hit songs

Rock Me (1938)

This Train (1939)

Strange Things Happening Every Day (recorded 1944, released 1945)

Precious Memories (1945)

Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air (1948)

Silent Night (Christmas Hymn) (1949)

The National Recording Registry

One of Tharpe’s recordings of Down by the Riverside has been selected for inclusion in the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress. The motivation for the inclusion highlights how this performance “captures her spirited guitar playing and unique vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early rhythm-and-blues performers” and also cites her influence on “many gospel, jazz, and rock artists”.

A trailblazing guitarist

In addition to being an amazing gospel singer, she was also a pinoneering guitarist. She was one of the first among the popular recording artists to include heavy distortion on her electric guitar, and thus contributed to the development of electric blues.

Blues Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007.

She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the category Early Influence in 2017.


Examples of singers and guitar players directly influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe are Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, and Ira Tucker, Sr. .

Her electric guitar style had a deep influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s, especially her performance in Manchester in 1963.

Background and early performances


She was born on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas.

Sources vary when it comes to her birthname. Her first name has been listed as both Rosetta and Rosether, and her last name as Nubin, Atkins or Atkinson.

Her mother Katie Bell Nubin (also known as Katie Harper) and her father Willis Atkins both worked as cotton pickers and were singers. The mother was also a mandolin player and a preacher for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). The Church of God in Christ encouraged rhytmical music and dancing at their meetings, and also allowed women to sing and teach in church.

From a tender age, Rosetta was encouraged to sing and play the guitar – performing as Little Rosetta Nubin when just four years old. When she was just six years old, she was already accompanying her mother’s travelling evangelical group, regularly performing at meetings in the American South that were part sermons and part gospel concerts.


In the mid-1920s, Rosetta moved with her mother to Chicago where they both continued to perform at religious meetings, especially at the COGIC curch on 40th Street. Rosetta was hailed as a child prodigy and received a lot of attention for her musical skills.

Becoming Tharpe

In 1934, Rosetta married the COGIC preacher Thomas Thorpe. The marriage only lasted a few years, but Rosetta would continue to include a modified version of the surname Thorpe in her stage name for the rest of her career. She remarried several times after leaving Thomas Thorpe in 1938, but never changed her stage name.

First recording

In 1938, Rosetta left her husband and moved with her mother to New York City. This was also the year when she recorded for the very first time, a recording that took place on Halloween for Decca Records and with Lucky Millinder’s Jazz Orchestra as backing.

The first gospel songs recorded by Decca Records all became smash hits and propelled Rosetta Tharpe into the limelight. They were “Rock Mer”, “That’s All”, “My Man and I” and “The Lonesome Road”.

Rosetta Thorpe became one of the first commercially successful gospel artists, and thus helped pave the way for other gospel artists in the record industry.

A controversal and groundbreaking artist

During her seven-year contract with Millinder, Rosetta Tharpe received a lot of attention – and criticism. Some outspoken churchgoers were appalled by the way she combined gospel-style lyrics with music and rythms that they perceived as “secular sounding”.

Tharpe added to their ire by sometimes singing wordly music and not shying away from performing both gospel and other acts in locations that weren’t just secular but outright nightclubs, such as Harlem’s Cotton Club. She frequently performed alongside blues and jazz musicians, and even decadently clad show girl dancers. For this, she lost the support of some of the stricter parts of the gospel fan base. In 1943, she considered going back to more strict gospel acts only, but she was still under contractual obligation to perform wordly material too.

Additionally, Tharpe broke taboos by occasionally performing with a white singing group (the Jordanaires) and this was also far from uncontroversial in those days.

Last by not least, the guitar was considered a dominantly male instrument – especially if the player was highly skilled, so Rosetta Tharpe’s participation in guitar battles the Apollo were far out of the norm. She would often given the back-handed compliment “You play like a man”.

Later life and death

Rosetta Tharpe continued to perform live until 1970 whe she suffered a stroke. Later, she lost one of her legs to diabetes complications.

On October 9, 1973 – on the even of a scheduled recording session – Tharpe suffered another stroke and died in Philadelphia.

Her grave is found at Philadelphia’s Northwood Cemetery. A gravestone was put in place in 2008, after a concert had been held to raise funds for it.

Destroyed material

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of many recording artists whose audio master tapes perished in the 2008 Universal Studios fire in California.

Examples of accolades

The United States Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp to honor Tharpe on July 15, 1998.

January 11 is Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania.

A historical marker has been placed at her former home in the Yorktown neighborhood of Philadelphia.

The BBC has produced a one-hour documentary titled “Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll”. It first aired in 2011.

On September 12, 2016, the musical play Marie And Rosetta, based on the relationship between Tharpe and the singer Marie Knight, opened at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.


  • Gospel Songs (Decca, 1947)
  • Blessed Assurance (Decca, 1951)
  • Gospel Train (Mercury, 1956)
  • The Gospel Truth (Mercury, 1959)
  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe (MGM, 1960)
  • Spirituals in Rhythm (Promenade, 1960)
  • Gospels in Rhythm (Coronet, 1960)
  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Omega, 1960)
  • Sister On Tour (Verve, 1961)
  • The Gospel Truth (Verve, 1962)
  • Precious Memories (Savoy, 1968)
  • Glorious Hymns (UpFront, 1978)
  • Gospel Keepsakes (MCA, 1983)
  • Live in 1960 (Southland, 1991)
  • Live at the Hot Club de France (BMG/Milan, 1991)

Her complete works up to 1961 were issued as seven double-CD box sets by the French label Frémeaux & Associés.