Marie Knight, 84

Marie Knight, 84; Genre-Breaking Gospel Singer Influenced Rock-and-Roll

Marie Knight sang with Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Marie Knight sang with Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (Mark Carpentieri Of Mc Records - Mark Carpentieri Of Mc Records)
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By Lauren Wiseman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Marie Knight, 84, a powerhouse gospel singer who teamed with Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the late 1940s to smash barriers between gospel and secular music and in turn helped influence such early rock-and-roll entertainers as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, died Aug. 30 at a Harlem nursing home of complications from pneumonia.

With songs such as "Didn't It Rain," "Up Above My Head," and "Beams of Heaven," the duo positioned their robust vocal skills against rollicking boogie-woogie piano and fierce blues guitar. They became one of the most popular gospel acts of the era, drawing acclaim from ticket buyers and reviewers.

Writing in Down Beat magazine in 1955, music critic Nat Hentoff compared Ms. Knight and Tharpe's technique to a bebop performance by trumpet virtuosos Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge.

The two women "build each number toward a swinging emotional climax that eventually draws everyone in the room into the act with them, clapping, beating their feet, nodding or just plain moved out by their 'sophisticated' complacency," Hentoff wrote.

When the duo performed, in addition to just singing, they would engage in a little banter with their signature "Sinner and Saint" act. Ms. Knight would play the sinner, dressed in a big straw hat playing a tiny ukulele while Ms. Tharpe was the saint carrying her big guitar. After some back and forth, the women would build up the audience anticipation and sing a big number, such as "Up Above My Head." The crowd would go wild with applause.

According to gospel historian Anthony Heilbut, Ms. Knight and Tharpe, who died in 1973, brought gospel music into many places where it had never been heard before, such as the Blue Angel nightclub in New York City. They also performed at the Apollo Theater in New York and, in one memorable engagement, at the old Griffith Stadium in Washington. At the 1951 show at the ballpark, before more than 20,000 people, Tharpe was married for the third time.

The duo formally split in the early 1950s after recording a blues record but continued to perform together on occasion. As a solo artist, Ms. Knight had several hits on the R&B charts, including 1957's "Tell Me Why," which was based on the gospel song "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," and 1965's "Cry Me a River." She also toured with Brook Benton, the Drifters and Clyde McPhatter.

Marie Roach was born June 1, 1925, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Newark, N.J. When she was 5, her parents lifted her up on a table during a church service to sing "Doing All the Good We Can." By 9, she was a soloist in her church youth choir and taught herself to play piano.

"I used to go to the church in the daytime and just hit one note at a time, to hear that sound," she once said. "It was a joy to me, to put those notes together on the piano, just one key at a time."

She began her professional career touring the national gospel circuit with evangelist Frances Robinson. Tharpe sought out Ms. Knight in 1946 after she saw her performing at a Mahalia Jackson at a concert in New York.

"She had a gift and so did I and the two gifts go together," Knight said.

On Dec. 25, 1941, she married Albert Knight, a Corpus Christi, Tex., preacher, after a four-day romance. They divorced eight years later, because Ms. Knight said she was more interested in a musical career than being a preacher's wife.

The couple had two children, who along with Ms. Knight's mother, were killed in a Newark fire in 1949 while Ms. Knight was touring in California with Tharpe. Survivors include a sister.

In the 1970s, Ms. Knight became a minister at the Gates of Prayer Church in New York City. In 1975, she recorded "Today," a solo gospel album. She had lived in Harlem since the 1980s.

She made a comeback in 2002 after performing on "Shout, Sister, Shout! A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe" and recorded the duo's first hit, "Didn't It Rain," as a solo artist. In 2007, M.C. Records released her first full-length album in more than 25 years, "Let Us Get Together."

"Ms. Knight's voice is still hearty and unpredictable,' " critic Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, "and the settings let her proclaim her faith fervently but without shouting."

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