Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Rosetta Tharpe was born on a cotton plantation in Arkansas in 1915. Both of Tharpe’s parents were musicians and her mother was also an evangelist and preacher for the Church of God in Christ. By the age of six, Tharpe had joined her mother as a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe. Billed as a “singing and guitar playing miracle,” she accompanied her mother in performances that were part sermon and part gospel concert before audiences across the apartheid American South. In her adult life, Tharpe became a pioneer of mid-20th-century music and attained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings, characterized by a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment that was a precursor of rock and roll.

This first track is from a performance given at a disused railway station in Manchester, in the north of England, in 1964. It’s called Didn’t It Rain – which might be appropriate for the city of Manchester…

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first great recording star of gospel music and among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll audiences, later being referred to as “the original soul sister” and “the godmother of rock and roll”. She influenced early rock-and-roll musicians, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

This next track is called That’s All and is from her first album ‘The Lonesome Road’, released by Decca in 1941. It was the first time ever that Decca had released an album of gospel songs…

Between 1941 and 1969 Sister Rosetta Tharpe released 17 albums. This next track is called Motherless Child and is from one of her final albums…

Tharpe’s records caused an immediate furor among many churchgoers, who were shocked by the mixture of gospel-based lyrics and secular-sounding music, but secular audiences loved them. She played on several occasions with the white singing group the Jordanaires. This next one is called Precious Memories and was released in 1948. Tharpe had very little chart success but this song did get to No.14 (there’s a slight pause before the track begins)…

Let’s get back to that disused railway station in Manchester in 1964, and a track called Trouble In Mind. You’ll notice that while Tharpe’s guitar is plugged in (despite the very wet/dangerous conditions), she does not have a proper microphone; such was the power of her voice. Tharpe’s performances were curtailed by a stroke in 1970, after which one of her legs was amputated as a result of complications from diabetes. On October 9th 1973, the eve of a scheduled recording session, she died aged 58 in Philadelphia as a result of another stroke. They don’t make ’em like Sister Rosetta Tharpe anymore…

You can find a documentary about Sister Rosetta Tharpe here.

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