Women’s History Month: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame

Born: March 20, 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas

Died: October 9, 1973 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Bio: Arkansas native Rosetta Nubin Tharpe was one of gospel music’s first superstars, the first gospel performer to record for a major record label (Decca), and an early crossover from gospel to secular music. Tharpe has been cited as an influence by several musicians including Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Arkansan Johnny Cash.

As a child, she could sing and keep on pitch and hold a melody. Her vocal qualities, however, paled beside her abilities on the guitar — she played individual tones, melodies and riffs instead of just strumming chords. This talent was all the more remarkable because, at the time, few African American women played guitar.

In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Rosetta Tharpe postage stamp. In 2003, the album Shout, Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe was released, with versions of Tharpe’s songs performed by female artists including Maria Muldaur, Odetta and Marcia Ball. She was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2012. In 2013, the PBS series American Masters featured an episode on Tharpe, and she was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame. 

Act 810 of 2017 designated Highway 17 from Cotton Plant to Brinkley the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Memorial Highway. In 2018, Tharpe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influence category, with Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performing two of Tharpe’s hits at the induction ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio. 

You can learn more about the life of Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.