Sister Rosetta Tharpe brought gospel to the mainstream by crossing over as a rock star
The guitar has been symbolic in music for centuries. Many iconic performers have been known to grace the stage with a guitar. Not to mention, songs are often given guitar breakdowns that transform them into something magical.
If you can write songs, sing them, and play the guitar you can probably become a star. That is if you sing well enough of course. However, most skilled artists tend to have multiple talents. Even with all that, nothing is guaranteed.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe definitely possessed the “It” factor as a distinguished singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Becoming a star was inevitable for her, even as a Black woman in the early 19th century. Her impact on the culture of music carries on through generations while making headway for African Americans.
You can’t teach greatness
In March of 1915, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born to cotton picking parents as Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Her parents were musically gifted and she began singing and playing the guitar as Little Rosetta Nubin at age four. By the time she was six, Rosetta joined her mother to perform and travel singing gospel. She was a rare commodity because Black female guitarists were quite uncommon. This environment is where she would meet her future husband.
She went on to marry a preacher named Thomas Thorpe at the age of 19. The marriage ended a few years later, but she kept her husband’s surname as her stage name to become Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When she left her husband in 1938, she moved with her mother in New York City.
That same year, she recorded for Decca Records, backed by Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra. Each record she released turned out to be a hit, making her one of the first commercially successful gospel recording artists. On the contrary, she faced backlash from churchgoers due to her songs gospel and secular combinations. Rosetta was able to wittingly place gospel lyrics on worldly tunes which captured audiences.
You can’t measure a prodigy
She made bold statements performing gospel at nightclubs alongside blues and jazz musicians. In a sense she was really crossing over as an artist. Her recordings of “This Train” and “Rock Me” became hits in the late 1930s with audiences that had no previous exposure to gospel music.
In this era, guitar skills were mainly associated with masculinity. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was able to challenge this gender construct with her exceptional skills. She was undeniable, but this was too much for the general public to digest. They downplayed her ingenuity with statements such as she could “play like a man”. She was a double threat, defying stereotypes and even outplaying many men in guitar battles at the Apollo. Rosetta wasn’t only a woman she was a Black woman which was truly revolutionary.
She continued to tour throughout the 1940s. In 1951 she was able to obtain 25,000 paying customers to witness her wed her manager. This was also her third marriage. Her peculiar reign continued as she toured Europe in 1964 with a Blues and Gospel line up.
You can’t hide the impact of a legacy
Sister Rosetta Tharpe continued to perform until her stroke in 1970. It caused the amputation of one of her legs. She died three years later in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a result of another stroke. She was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia. A marker has since been placed on her resting place.
It has been said that Rosetta laid the foundation for Rock and Roll. Her career produced several chart-topping hits and as of 2007, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2011 BBC Four aired a one-hour documentary, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll. As of December 2017, she is elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe made spearheading and crossing boundaries look easy. Her force was powerful and strong like a man, but she was a gifted woman with finesse. The essence of her fearless and innovative nature by the way of the guitar is inspirational.
Sometimes boundaries exist to keep you safe and other times they exist to limit you from excelling. Remember one small step can change the course of everything. The steps you take today to cross boundaries may lead others to a path of victory.
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