Sister Rosetta Tharpe is one of the most interesting figures in the history of American popular music. A year of so ago PBS’s American Masters biography series produced an episode about her life, which was filled with extraordinary accomplishments and fascinating contradictions.
From her early childhood Rosetta Tharp was a regular performer on the southern Gospel circuit, as famous for her guitar playing as her singing. She fell out with the older crowd for performing Gospel music in secular settings, like nightclubs, and just for being a woman who was an awesome guitar player in the first place.
Her music walked a line between Saturday night and Sunday morning — and the best of it presaged rhythm & blues and rock & roll, especially the 1944 song “Strange Things Happening Every Day” (which she wrote and performed with pianist Sammy Price). Chuck Berry, for instance, was influenced by her playing, not to mention artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis and Little Richard.
Sister Rosetta’s career with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra produced a number of hit records, but people speculate she didn’t have much say over what songs they recorded. By the end of her contract with the bandleader, she made one of several returns to performing strictly gospel music.
That 25,000 people paid to attend her third wedding at the Washington Senator’s park, Griffith Stadium in 1951, is a remarkable testament to her popularity. A souvenir 10″ record of the wedding which came out later still turns up here in the shop from time to time. That marriage (her third) like many of her business arrangements was controversial and not regarded by those close to her to have been a good idea.
In “The Children and their Secret Closet,” an essay by Anthony Heilbut in The Fan Who Knew too Much, published last year, we learn that a surprising number of influential black Gospel performers of the 40s and 50s were gay or identified by friends as “queer.” This included Alex Bradford, James Cleveland and, of course, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose personal relationship singer Marie Knight sparked speculation. Heilbut points out that the church at the time not only provided refuge for black gays, but encouraged their talents in a world which otherwise wouldn’t have done so — Rosetta Tharpe’s life is particularly remarkable because she was one of the first performers to break out of the insulated southern Gospel circuit and face a larger audience.Today it is not controversial for a woman to accompany herself with a guitar, for two women to tour without a male escort as Tharpe and Knight did, or for an artist to perform spiritual music in a secular setting. To do all of these things in time, Sister Rosetta must have had enormous confidence and courage.A traditional song which was re-worked by Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1956 has been a favorite encore closer for our friend Charlie Parr for years. He is an example of an artist who can work spiritual and secular subjects into a set — here is Sister Rosetta’s version of “Can’t No Grave Hold my Body Down”: