DECEMBER 16, 2008 PRESS RELEASE (from Bob Merz, Philadelphia):

Sister Rosetta’s Stone: Gospel Music Legend Memorialized after 35 Years

Philadelphia, PA – Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the pioneering gospel musician and instrumentalist, finally has a gravestone marking her resting place at Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia. Since her passing in 1973, the gravesite of Sister Rosetta had been a barren plot lacking any memorial. Today, a beautiful, rose-colored monument bears respect to one of America’s most influential artists of the 20th Century.

Sister Rosetta’s monument was partially funded by a benefit concert at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA on January 11, 2008, that featured performances by gospel and spiritual music legends—The Dixie Hummingbirds, Odetta, Marie Knight, Willa Ward, The Johnny Thompson Singers, and The Huff Singers. Additional financial contributions were provided by Philadelphia’s Rhythm & Blues Foundation, and the Blues Foundation in Memphis.

It is noteworthy that the placement of Sister Rosetta’s monument coincides with the recent passing of two groundbreaking musicians she deeply influenced—Ira Tucker of The Dixie Hummingbirds, and Odetta, the Queen of American Folk Music. In an interview prior to the benefit concert with the Northeast Times, Odetta talked about the road Rosetta paved: “She is a part of that history that was so valuable and is so valuable to young blacks as we were coming along. She is certainly a champion where the guitar is concerned. My playing was a fair rhythm guitar, but that woman could play the guitar.”

The fund-raising effort to provide for Sister Rosetta’s memorial was initiated by Gayle Wald, a Philadelphia area native, and Professor of English at George Washington University, who authored the biography, Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Gayle Wald’s vision was realized when Robert Merz, a local entrepreneur, heard her PBS interview on Radio Times, and set out to organize and promote the benefit show with co-production from Penn State Musicologist Jerry Zolten, WRDV-FM Radio Host David April, and acclaimed choreographer LaDeva Davis.

Pennsylvania Governor Rendell proclaimed the date of the concert as “Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day” in the State, paying tribute to a “truly amazing and inspirational musician.” Sister Rosetta was gospel’s first superstar who brought spiritual music into the mainstream with a blend of blues, jazz, big band, and rhythm & blues. Her ringing soprano voice and guitar virtuosity set her apart from other greats of gospel’s Golden Age. In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor. She is a member of the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame.

In 1957, Rosetta Tharpe and her husband, Russell Morrison, moved to Philadelphia, joining the lively local gospel scene. She was a first-generation resident in the historic Yorktown neighborhood, and a member of Bright Hope Baptist Church. From Philadelphia, she did some of her finest recordings, releasing five LP’s and gaining a Grammy nomination with her 1968 album, Precious Memories. Her tours of Europe in the late 1950’s helped to spark the British blues revival and onset of 1960’s popular music.

In 2008, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission approved the placement of a Historical Marker at the Philadelphia home of Sister Rosetta (1102 Master Street). A funding drive is currently in the works to finance this Marker. In addition, plans for a memorial service to commemorate the monument at Northwood Cemetery are being set for Spring, 2009.

The inscription on the gravestone is from the eulogy by Roxie Moore (living in Baltimore), and the stone was produced by Wertheimer-Liberty Monuments of Southampton, PA. The text reads:

March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973
“Sister Rosetta”
Gospel Music Legend