Sister Rosetta Tharpe started playing guitar at the age of four. Encouraged by her religious family, she played music in church from a very young age. Around the age of six, Tharpe and her mother, a mandolin player, started travelling as part of an evangelical troupe. These performances were part sermon and part gospel concert. She quickly grew in notoriety, as her prodigious talent helped her shine in an era when prominent African-American female guitarists were rare.
Her first studio album, recorded in 1938, rocketed her to stardom. Audiences were split: the mixture of gospel-like lyrics and secular-sounding guitar music outraged conservative churchgoers (the majority in 1930s / 1940s America), but secular listeners couldn’t get enough. She was an overnight success with popular audiences all over the USA.
By the time she was thirty, she had been married twice and had relationships with a number of both men and women. She was open about her sexuality within the music industry, but kept the information from the public. Tharpe went on to form a duo with one of her partners, Marie Knight, in the latter half of the 1940s. Touring, collaborating and performing as two queer black female artists was a radical act in the segregated and conservative world of the contemporary American South.
One of Tharpe’s most memorable performances took place in 1964, when she performed at a train station in Manchester. Battling driving rain, she opened with ‘Didn’t It Rain’, to rapturous applause from her growing European fan base. She had recently started looking further afield than the USA thanks to the proliferation of white performers in the Rock and Roll scene.
Although often overlooked during her own lifetime, Sister Rosetta Tharpe has, in recent years, been given the recognition she deserves. In 2018 she was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and continues to be celebrated as an unmatched artist who constantly sought to create trail-blazing music and unforgettable live performances.
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