In 1998 the US Postal Service issued a Sister Rosetta Tharpe postage stamp and if that is not an indicator of some form of greatness, I don't know what is. It's not every day that a guitar-playing gospel shouter from Cotton Plant, Arkansas gets her mug plastered on a stamp. When none other than Johnny Cash called her out as his "all time favourite singer" or when Elvis and Bob Dylan cite her influence, then you begin to understand how much of an impact she had.
Born in 1915 and playing music since she was a little girl, Tharpe was billed as a “singing and guitar-playing miracle.” She performed throughout the South with her mother as members of an evangelistic troupe and by the time they landed in Chicago in the late '20s Tharpe would be inundated with music. She would soak up the jazz, blues, folk and gospel of the ripe Chicago scene and it would be reflected later in her own mature music. When she began to straddle the line between the secular and the sacred was when her popularity began to flourish, she would later say, "You know it was all music to me. It all came from the Lord. Singing about my baby is the same as singing about my saviour to me. Love is the key. So yeah I was doing it all. But mainly singing hymns and popular gospel music."
When she cut her first sides for Decca Records, on Halloween day 1938, they were met with immediate success and less than two months later she would perform at John Hammond's legendary “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. Riding high with record hits and performing regularly, Tharpe would maintain immense popularity into the 1950s. This popularity is evidenced by her marriage to Russell Morrison in 1951 at a ballpark in Washington D.C. which 20,000 people paid to witness and then to hear her perform after the ceremony. "I played for them folks in my wedding gown! What a hoot!"
The only other gospel singer to rival her popularity in that era was Mahalia Jackson. Jackson would hold the line with her straight and serious gospel outings whereas Tharpe liked to rock out and have a little fun, the devil be damned, "I came up with Mahalia, and Lordy, she beat the shit out of me with her voice and power, but, I suppose I had her beat to hell on the rocking and rolling!"
When asked about causing uproar among the religious faithful with her popular hits Tharpe replied, "I didn’t set about that. No one goes looking for trouble for no cause. Ha ha! But you see I never liked to be put in one box or another for too long. I loved all kinds of music and like King David, I wanted to dance when I praised the Good Lord. So you see, I’d get lost in my guitar playing and my hips would sway..ha ha ha…and pretty soon I’d be swaying. And the Sanctified, they objected to that sort of thing and so they told me that I wasn’t no gospel singer any more. So I said, well hang them and started playing the clubs like the Cotton Club, The Apollo and Café Society. And they appreciated what I was serving up, you know. But I never left the Lord’s path. At least not for too long at a time! Hahaha!"