Born amid the cotton fields and gospel tent revivals of 1921 Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe had a booming vibrato voice and, along with Memphis Minnie, was one of the female pioneers of the instrument. As a result of her family moving to Chicago when she was a young child, Tharpe often brought elements of the blues to gospel music. In 1938, she signed with Decca, cutting 'Rock Me' and 'This Train,' which were both enormous hits.
Recording a few straight blues tunes with Madame Marie Knight in the 1950s dismayed her original gospel fan base. She was shunned by the congregations that had made her famous. While Tharpe slowly regained some of her former success, she was never the star that she was before the controversy.
Irma Thomas -- who along with Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, Angela Strehli and Del Ray is taking part in a long-overdue Jazz Fest tribute to Sister Rosetta -- admires the guitar-wielding maverick. 'I would assume she may have felt [performing in clubs] was a way to get the gospel out to people who would probably never hear it in church, which shows she really did have good intentions,' Thomas says.
Thomas has recorded blues and gospel -- along with R&B, pop and numerous other genres. Still, she believes that there's a right time and place for everything. 'I don't agree with putting gospel music in nightclubs because that's not the place for it,' she says. 'It's not the right setting for gospel because people are in there drinking alcohol. I would rather have my gospel music in a place where I know people are receptive to it, where I know the message won't get confused. That's why I don't mix gospel music in with my shows.'
Thomas speculates that blurring the line between the spiritual and secular was responsible for Tharpe's decline in popularity. 'Black people in that era were an extremely faith-based people and when she moved to clubs she really put her foot in it.'
Marcia Ball concurs. '[Tharpe] tried to make the switch to secular music and just wasn't as successful in that arena as someone like a Sam Cooke was much later, and she really lost her base and really suffered as a result of that.' Still, Thomas has fond memories of Tharpe. "I grew up hearing her on the radio on all the gospel shows. One of the things that always really struck me was that she was very raw. She played her guitar her way. Some of the chord changes were not exactly the norm. It was as if she was performing to entertain herself more than an audience. It was a take-no-prisoners-type thing!"
- Rick Olivier
- According to Irma Thomas (pictured), Sister Rosetta Tharpe "played her guitar her way. Some of the chord changes were not exactly the norm."