The most flamboyant of gospel performers, the mink fur-clad Sister Rosetta Tharpe, from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, was one of the first to take the electric guitar, the devil’s vessel, into the church and from that moment she became a catalyst for much of what has followed since. Her 1938 debut Rock Me lay the foundation for rock’n’roll, capturing her incendiary guitar playing with its inimitable grit and her mezzo soprano voice and its powerful tremor. The song also made her gospel music’s first crossover star. Such was her appeal that she was one of only two gospel acts asked to cut V-discs for overseas servicemen during World War II. She performed at Harlem’s Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall and singles such as 1939’s This Train, with its pop keen, and 1945’s Strange Things Happening Everyday, a mesh of blues and the sanctified, pushed the possibilities of gospel further towards rock and soul and lent her the sobriquet “original soul sister”. The latter was also the first gospel record to make Billboard’s Harlem
Hit Parade, later to become the “race” chart, then the R&B chart, peaking at No 2. In 1951 she went back to her roots on Blessed Assurance, a collection of hymns – Amazing Grace, What A Friend We Have In Jesus et al – on which her performance is terrifying in its commitment and feeling. Backed by NY harmony group The Rosettes, she delivers a landmark in gospel and female church vocals, capturing within her emotional expression everything that makes us human. LW
Runners-up: Hank Williams Hank Williams Sings, Duke Ellington Ellington Uptown, Thelonious Monk Genius Of Modern Music.