Sister Rosetta Tharpe – The Pride of Cotton Plant, Arkansas
“You would wonder where she learned to play a guitar like that. She could do runs, she could do sequences, she could do arpeggios, and she could play anything with the guitar. You could say something and she could make the guitar say it…I mean, she could put that guitar behind her and play it; she could sit on the floor and play it, she could lay down and play it,” Alfred Miller.
She was Johnny Cash’s favorite singer. It is believed that the Million Dollar Quartet, that famous impromptu 1956 recording session in Memphis comprised of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, performed the Rosetta Tharpe hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day” while warming up. It is documented that they recorded “Down by the Riverside,” a popular spiritual that was a regular part of her repertoire. She was playing guitar in a decidedly rock ‘n’ roll fashion years before Chuck Berry popularized the instrument as the centerpiece of the genre. Yet, she is virtually unknown – a minor footnote in pop music history.
Rosetta Tharpe spent the first years of her life in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, a poor Delta community named for its economic raison d’être. Katie, her mother, moved her to Chicago at the age of six. She would never see her father again. She was raised as a performer on the Church of God in Christ’s revival circuit. It is believed that she learned her style of guitar playing, blasting a succession of notes versus strumming the instrument, as a way to fill the air and time during church revivals. Sister Rosetta Tharpe had a complicated relationship with religion – she was born into the business of religion and when she performed secular music, it was always at the risk of alienating her core audience. Late in her life she stated that she wasn’t a “fanatical believer,” although that may have been more of a casual comment than a reflection of her core convictions.
Tharpe moved to Miami in the late 1930s and became a significant attraction – her church performances where aired on local radio and attracted a sizable and non-traditional audience. One remembrance, “Sometimes we had more whites in the church than blacks.” Her next professional move was out of the church and directly to the famed Cotton Club in New York, where she started performing in 1938. She spent the next few years as a Decca Recording artist and worked at legendary venues such the Apollo Theater, Carnegie Hall, and the folk oriented Café Society. She went on the road with Cab Calloway and worked with Lucky Millinder’s big band, where she performed decidedly non-spiritual material like “Tall Skinny Papa.” In 1943, she left Millinder’s employment, while still on contract, to begin a solo career. Her instincts and her confidence were well placed. In 1944, she recorded her most successful chart outing, the #2 R&B hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” which took a sideways glance at, let’s call it, the cognitive dissonance often displayed by parishioners.
In the late 1940s, Rosetta returned to the R&B charts with the Top Ten hits “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air,” structured in the R&B gospel tradition, and the Christmas standard “Silent Night.” She also toured for several years with younger gospel singer Marie Knight. Although Tharpe had been married twice, it has often been speculated that the relationship with Knight may have been more than platonic. She was at her commercial peak, Billboard magazine estimated that she made $200,000 in 1949, but financial management was not one of her strengths.
A high or low point in Rosetta’s career came in 1951, when she married Russell Morrison as part of a concert performance in Washington, D.C. The event was promoted as a wedding celebration before Rosetta found a potential husband. Morrison was uniformly seen as a gold digger by Rosetta’s friends, but stayed with her until her death in 1973. Of course, he earned not a penny during those 22 years and didn’t see the utility in providing a headstone for Rosetta’s grave. While the wedding was major news in the African-American community, there were those who viewed the event as a legitimate celebration and those who considered it a tacky publicity stunt. In either event, the hits dried up and Rosetta soon found herself unable to make the payments on her Richmond, Virginia home. She relocated to a Philadelphia apartment and went back to the gospel circuit, making less and less money every year as the rock ‘n’ roll craze had taken America by storm.
Her career was revived in the late 1950s by the interest in traditional R&B by young English musicians. Rather obscure American blues artists could perform in arenas throughout Europe and a series of overseas tours in the late 1950s helped Rosetta regain her financial footing. She continued working during the 1960s, touring overseas and throughout the U.S. and recording a series of albums with limited commercial success. She was diagnosed with diabetes late in her life and her illness required a leg amputation. Sister Rosetta Tharpe spent her final years performing while seated to small church groups, most likely needing both the meager earnings and the applause that entertainers so desperately crave. She passed away at the age of 58 in 1973.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a consummate entertainer who was equally comfortable working in churches, nightclubs, and arenas for gospel, R&B, and folk audiences. Her huge smile was matched by her expensive gowns and she often looked toward the sky when singing, as though her true audience was clapping along up in the heavens. She lived through fame and fortune, segregation and poverty, acceptance and scorn. Decades after she died, her resting place in Philadelphia’s Northwood Cemetery was given a headstone. It’s inscription, “She would sing until you cried and then sing until you danced with joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”
For more information on Rosetta Tharpe, view the PBS American Masters special available at http://video.pbs.org/video/2337391461/ or check out the excellent 2003 biography Shout, Sister, Shout! written by Gayle Wald.