Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) innovated the Gospel genre by incorporating spiritual lyrics into rhythm and blues accompaniment, creating a blueprint for rock and roll. Rosetta was born under the last name Nubin into a musical home in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Her mother played the mandolin and sang and she was Rosetta’s biggest cheerleader, encouraging her to start singing at age 4. By age 6, Tharpe was traveling with an evangelical troupe and accompanying her mother in gospel performances that incorporated sermons.
In her first decade of life, Rosetta was highly revered as a musical prodigy and billed when performing as a “singing and guitar playing miracle.” After settling in Chicago with her mother in the mid-1920s, Tharpe continued to perform over the following decade when well-known Black female guitarists were rare.
By 1934, Rosetta married and adopted a version of the last name of her husband, Thomas Thorpe, changing the surname to ‘Tharpe’ and using it as part of her stage name for the rest of her career. With her new stage name, Tharpe left her husband, moved to New York City, and began recording for the first time in 1938 through Decca Records. One of her first singles, “Rock Me” inspired many, even the likes of Elvis Presley and Little Richard.
She went on to play Harlem’s Cotton Club, tour Europe, and play with other greats such as Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. She developed an extensive gospel and secular catalog, becoming one of the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her guitar playing. Without her use of rhythmic distortion on her signature Gibson SG during a European tour with Muddy Waters in 1964, the British Blues scene of the 1960s may have never been.