From the age of six, she was regularly performing with her mother at Chicago's 40th Street Church of God in Christ, where, unlike some other sanctified denominations, a variety of instruments, including guitars, brass, and drums, as well as women musicians were welcomed.
Throughout Tharpe's teenage years, she traveled extensively with her evangelist mother, singing and playing at revivals throughout the country. She was soon discovered by New York talent scouts and moved to the big city to work with the Count Basie Band, the Cab Calloway Revue, Louis Jordan's Band, the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, among others, at exclusive clubs and nightspots in the Big Apple, like the Cotton Club, the Savoy, Cafe Society, and the Apollo.
She signed a record contract with Decca that resulted in several big hits, including "Strange Things Happening Every Day" with Sammy Price, in 1944, that many consider to be a direct precursor to rock 'n' roll, with its strong, steady beat and spare instrumentation. And, while I never did get to see Tharpe in person, I did spend many a happy hour at the Copley Plaza Hotel Bar in Boston during the 1980s, listening to Sammy Price play superb boogie-woogie piano.
It is no exaggeration to site Tharpe as the first real superstar of gospel. She was everywhere during the 1940s and 50s. At the marriage to her third husband in 1951 she filled Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., with more than twenty thousand fans for a sensational "wedding concert" to end all weddings. She continued to tour throughout the 1960s and 70s, thrilling audiences, often in Europe, until her death in 1973.