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.
Rosetta Nubin was born in Cotton Plant (Woodruff County) on March 20, 1915, to Katie Bell Nubin, an evangelist, singer, and mandolin player for the Church of God in Christ. No mention is found of her father. Nubin began performing at age four, playing guitar and singing “Jesus is on the Main Line.” By age six, Nubin appeared regularly with her mother, performing a mix of gospel and secular music styles that would eventually make her famous. As a youth, she could sing and keep on pitch and hold a melody. Her vocal qualities, however, paled beside her abilities on the guitarshe 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.
Nubin’s guitar style was influenced by her mother’s mandolin playing, pianist Arizona Dranes, and composer Florence Price, with whom Rosetta studied in Cotton Plant. She also sang the popular hymns of the day, including the compositions of bluesman turned gospel musician, Thomas A. Dorsey. Indeed, elements of blues are readily apparent in Nubin’s guitar styling. Later, Nubin’s music would be influenced by her work with jazz greats Lucky Milliner and Cab Calloway.