Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the bride, was their heroine: a guitar picker from the Church of God in Christ and one of the era’s most acclaimed gospel singers. Her former duet partner, singer-pianist Madame Marie Knight, served as her maiden of honor. Her backing singers, the Rosettes, served as bridesmaids.
When she had booked the wedding venue, she didn’t even have a groom.
“Rosetta’s wedding and concert embodied feelings of community and hope that took her audience outside of their everyday lives,” historian Gayle Wald wrote in “Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”
Sister Rosetta is having her moment now, more than 49 years after her death. A 2018 inductee to the rock-and-roll Hall of Fame, she has recently emerged as a social media meme in posts that highlight her influence on Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry, with some even positing her as the first rock-and-roll guitarist. She has been dubbed a “queer icon” for her reported bisexuality and relationship with Knight. A touring musical based on Wald’s book on Tharpe even headlines Ford’s Theatre through Saturday.
For Tharpe, who already had twice married and divorced, the wedding put her back in the public eye. She had sung both gospel and blues in the 1940s, with a big band led by Lucky Millinder. Later, she teamed up with Knight, finding success with their 1947 recording of “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music In The Air” before splitting up. Decca, her record company, noticing a decline in sales of her gospel records, had tried without success to mold her into a rhythm-and-blues performer.
Tharpe, though, had a distinctive persona to market. She had blazed a trail with her innovative electric guitar work, her occasional detours into secular music and, to churches’ dismay, her willingness to perform in night clubs.
Enter the Feld brothers, Irvin and Israel. Irvin Feld owned Super Music City record stores, a D.C. chain and had branched out into concert promotion. Within a few years, Feld Entertainment would organize rock-and-roll tours headlined by such performers as Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1967, the brothers and another investor would purchase the Ringling Brothers Circus.
The brothers had earlier booked Tharpe for concerts at Turner’s Arena, a small outdoor venue that could hold little more than 2,000 people. But they and Tharpe set bigger ambitions for their event in the summer of 1951. They decided on the ballpark, which also hosted the Negro League Homestead Grays. Radio evangelist Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux, of Washington’s Gospel Spreading Church of God, had used the venue for church revivals with fireworks and mass baptisms, thus making it a logical choice.
Unlike Michaux, Tharpe was not an ordained evangelist and could not hold a revival. So they decided on a wedding — a religious ceremony — as a hook for the concert.
Ads in the Afro-American promoted it as “the most elaborate wedding ever staged … plus the world’s greatest spiritual concert.” Ebony noted that many of the ads for the event only mentioned Sister Rosetta, not her groom.
That groom ended up being Russell Morrison, a Pittsburgh man with grandiose visions of himself as a promoter, though it’s unknown today how the couple met. Morrison was not very religious himself, but he followed entertainers and often bragged to friends about his contacts in show business.
Tharpe and Morrison were to wed on July 3, the Tuesday evening that preceded Independence Day. That timing may have been key, as Tharpe’s audience consisted primarily of working-class Black residents in a largely segregated city. In the Green Book era, there were only a few Black-friendly beaches they could get away to, and the midweek holiday left them with even fewer options. So, despite a crushing streetcar strike, they attended from all over the city.
Tharpe, who resided in Richmond, bought her wedding dress from Thalhimers, the city’s main department store. She earlier had tried to buy a fur coat there with cash, but a store clerk, suspicious of a Black woman carrying a large sum of money, called the police, who escorted her out of the store.
Though the retailer later apologized, the incident rankled. So when the store, in acknowledgment of Tharpe’s celebrity, agreed not only sell her an $800 wedding dress but send the dress up in its own car with a fitter, it perhaps was a sweet revenge. The bride’s other accoutrements included a $350 sequin-trimmed veil and rhinestone tiara plus a $400 bouquet of orchids interspersed with ostrich feathers.
The Feld brothers’ sister “Shirley Feld remembered a lot about the wedding dress that she had bought at Thalhimers,” Wald said. “Shirley never forgot that there was a White woman who buttoned all the buttons on the back of her dress. It was a role reversal.”
The Rev. Samuel Kersey, a Church of God in Christ minister and broadcaster from the District, officiated — with levity.
“I know how to marry people!” he shouted during the service. “If they don’t stay together, it’s not my fault.”
At one point, Kersey prompted laughter from the predominantly female audience when he asked whether Morrison had the money for a ring. Giggles could also be heard when he came to the love and obey part of Tharpe’s vows.
“It’s kind of like the whole crowd is in on the joke,” Wald said in an interview. “They understand that it is matrimonial but not quite holy matrimony, either.”
As wedding planners often warn at rehearsals, there are always moments that can’t be anticipated. Ebony, the African American monthly magazine, wrote that the “only hitch to the evening was the three-year-old ring bearer, Theodore Summers, who stole the show when he walked so fast he passed up the flower girl, the groom and the best man and had to be called back.”
A concert featuring Tharpe, the Harmonizing Four and several other gospel singers followed the vows. Concessionaires sold souvenir programs, lucky key chains and miniature bibles. The show ended with a fireworks display that included a giant pyrotechnic image of the singer with her guitar. Decca released an album with the wedding ceremony on one side and concert selections on the other.
Ebony devoted three pages to the 1951 wedding, covering the event in almost granular detail; the local Black paper, the Washington Afro-American, put it on its front page.
“Gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a big girl with a big voice who likes to do things in a big way,” Ebony proclaimed. “Little wonder that her recent wedding was the biggest the nation’s capital has ever seen.”
Some local commentators objected to the rite of marriage being turned into a commercial spectacle. Neither the White-owned Washington Post nor Washington Evening Star covered it.
Still, the event may have inspired at least one other such musical matrimonial display. The following year, country singer Hank Williams took public wedding vows to Billie Jean Jones in two concerts at the New Orleans Civic Auditorium.
More than that, Wald argues, Tharpe’s wedding anticipated the big rock concerts of later decades. The success of Tharpe’s wedding, she wrote, “demonstrates how incomplete popular memory can be, especially when it comes to gospel. … [I]f there is any doubt that she deserves the title of ‘stadium rocker,’ consider that on July 3, 1951, a balmy summer evening, when trolleys and buses in Washington sat idle because of an ongoing transit strike, she outsold the Washington Senators in a regular-season game.”
It wasn’t all for show, either: Morrison, though he wasn’t in the picture when the venue was booked, stayed married to Tharpe and handled her bookings until her death in 1973.
Their Christmas cards, however, clearly indicated who was the boss in the relationship:
“Mr. and Mrs. Rosetta Tharpe Morrison,” their signature read.