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Gospel Truths: Marie Knight: Saturday, 5:30 p.m., Adler Theatre PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 02 July 2008 03:14

Marie Knight "I got started singing when I was five years old," Marie Knight said in a recent phone interview. "My mother used to stand me up on the table in the church. That's been my life, the church."

Unlike those black sanctified singers who crossed over from gospel to pop (like Sister Rosetta Tharpe) or who started in blues but ended up preaching (like the Reverend Gary Davis), Knight's story has generally stayed within the bounds the church. And this year she's being inducted into the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Detroit.

Knight's been on the road singing gospel music since she was 16 (in 1939), having progressed from singing in the choir to soloist. Although she's a minister herself now - she sings in her church when she's home - she spent 23 years touring and recording with Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the height of Tharpe's popularity as a nationally famous gospel singer/guitarist.

The two met in 1946, when Tharpe was on stage with Mahalia Jackson at Harlem's Golden Gate Auditorium. In the liner notes to Knight's Let Us Get Together CD, she writes: "That syncopated rhythm Rosetta played on the guitar was very unusual, but it was exciting to me. She heard me [singing] on the floor with a group of girls from the church, and she asked if I'd like to sing with her. She had been looking for a partner, and she thought our voices would go together." Tharpe convinced her record label, Decca, that the two would make a great singing pair.

Working with Tharpe, Knight said, "was one of the things that I'll never forget the rest of my life, because that was 23 years of, just say, a good time. ... Oh yes, we went all over the United States. For 23 years. ... We were doing concerts here, there, and yonder - and auditoriums and outside, just like it is now." In 1951, the pair was so popular that they attracted 25,000 paying customers to Tharpe's wedding, followed by a vocal performance at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC.

They followed the gospel circuit for a number of years, including a tour with the Dixie Hummingbirds in the late '40s. The two became gospel's preeminent duo of the postwar '40s, recording hits including "Didn't It Rain" in 1947 and "Up Above My Head" in 1948. "With Sister Rosetta's keening soprano scaling the mountaintops and Marie Knight's rich contralto scouring the valleys, the two women, spurred on by the virtuosic likes of bebop drummer Kenny Clark and blues pianist Sammy Price, accounted for some of the most breathtaking call-and-response in all of gospel music," noted No Depression magazine earlier this year.

Regarding "Didn't It Rain," Knight told Gayle Wald, author of the Tharpe biography Shout, Sister, Shout: "Sam [Price, the piano player] was one of the greatest rock-and-roll musicians out there, and he put a lot of that rock and roll behind the tempo and the tone with our recording." Knight herself tried the rhythm-and-blues field for a while, recording a cover of "Cry Me a River" in 1965 - it made it to number 35 on the Billboard R&B charts - and touring with Brooke Benton, the Drifters, and Clyde McPhatter.

"I was into rhythm and blues about three months," Knight told me. "And I couldn't get satisfied with that because it wasn't me. I decided that I didn't want that, and I dropped that completely. Completely. I do nothing but gospel."

After a brief hiatus in the early '70s (Tharpe suffered a stroke in 1970 and died in 1973), Knight returned to singing and recording gospel music. When I asked if she took any retirement time in the '80s and '90s, she said, "No. Because of the way I do my life. When I'm finished with the concert I go home. I don't play around; I go home and get some rest, and I stay home until I get tired of that and want to go on the road."

In January of 2002, Knight entered a recording studio to pay tribute to her old singing partner by doing a solo version of their hit "Didn't It Rain." She'd been tracked down by Mark Carpentieri of MC records on the advice of Wald. The album she sang on, Shout, Sister, Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also includes numbers by Marcia Ball, the Holmes Brothers, Maria Muldaur, Tracy Nelson, Joan Osborne, and Bonnie Raitt. That session - and Knight's continuing vitality as a singer and performer - led to her present collaboration with producer Carpentieri on the recently issued Let Us Get Together: A Tribute to Reverend Gary Davis.

It was Carpentieri's idea to have Knight sing the Gary Davis songs. "He said he thought it would be very good," she told me. "He had studied over it for a while. I told him yes, I'll record the record, but I'll have to put me in it - because I'd never seen the Reverend Davis. It would have to be my voice and the way I want to do it."

All the songs on the album have spiritual content. Besides the title cut, Knight puts her own spin on selections including "I Belong to the Band," "Samson & Delilah" (a.k.a. "If I Had My Way"), "Death Don't Have No Mercy," and "You Got to Move."

The Reverend Gary Davis was a towering figure in at least two realms. As a finger-style guitarist, he developed a complex yet swinging approach to picking that has influenced generations of players, including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Aiplane and Hot Tuna, and Stefan Grossman. And as a composer of religious and secular music, he created a substantial body of work that has been recorded by, among others, Bob Dylan; Jackson Browne; Peter, Paul, & Mary; and the Grateful Dead.

Knight worked with Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on the album. He states in the liner notes that "the Piedmont blues [of Gary Davis] is all about imitating ragtime piano playing." That makes it appropriate that accompanying Knight at her blues-festival appearance will be pianist Dave Keyes.

So festival-goers should be prepared for Marie Knight to take them to church on the Adler Theatre stage. Campbell put it best in the liner notes to Knight's latest album: "I tracked down some of Marie's own records, and I was bowled over by her ease of soulful expression; it just flowed out of her. She's one of those singers who just opens her mouth and sings with no pretension behind it."

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