Annette John-Hall: New marker in N. Phila. labels home of music pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

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Jazz musician Monnette Sudler plays at the unveiling of the historical marker at the North Philadelphia home of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, shown in the small photo. (Caitlin Morris / Staff Photographer)

Ira Tucker Jr. used to think that going to Sister Rosetta Tharpe's house was like going to Hollywood.

Even if all he did was cross Broad Street into Yorktown.

But here, on the east side of North Philadelphia, was where many African American role models lived - the schoolteachers, lawyers, and doctors who mowed the lawns in front of their homes and parked late-model cars in their garages.

"You'd see these people and think, 'I might be able to get here someday,' " Tucker said Monday.

Tharpe, Philadelphia's unparalleled guitar-playing gospel crossover superstar, whose career took her from traveling evangelist in the 1930s to Cotton Club headliner in the '40s and European blues idol in the '60s, lived here, too, for 15 years, until her death in 1973. Oh, and she owned a Chrysler that was so long, it hung out of her garage.

So it was fitting that Sister Rosetta, the sanctified rocker, was honored Monday with the dedication of an official state historical marker before a small but enthusiastic group of Tharpe-philes, community sponsors, and neighborhood folks in front of her old home at 11th and Master.

"We had a lot of fun here," said Tucker, 70, whose late father, Ira Sr., a member of the Dixie Hummingbirds for over a half-century, was a close friend and tour mate of Tharpe's.

Ira Jr. recalled celebrating countless Thanksgivings with "Aunt Sis."

"She'd put on her records, tune up her guitar, and put on a show right in her living room.

"She was fire."

Not to mention a true pioneer whose big, bluesy voice and guitar virtuosity set the foundation for rock and roll upon which Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard eventually reigned.

Sadly, during her last days, Tharpe sat in a wheelchair, one leg amputated from diabetes. A blood clot traveled to her brain and killed her at 58, a complication of the disease.

For decades, Sister Rosetta lay buried and nearly forgotten in an unmarked grave at Northwood Cemetery in North Philly.

But thanks to a recent resurgence of all things Tharpe, that's changing now.

 

Mesmerizing musician

Check out one of Sister Rosetta's performances on YouTube and you'll be impressed by her big soprano. But it's her guitar playing that's mesmerizing.

Tucker says she's a cross among Aretha, Jimi Hendrix, and Lady Gaga.

"To see a woman play with that kind of authority and passion blew me away," said Gayle F. Wald, the George Washington University English professor whose 2007 biography, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, set the resurgence in motion.

Hearing Wald talk about Sister Rosetta on NPR inspired local entrepreneur Robert Merz to organize a benefit show at the Keswick to raise funds for a headstone. Gov. Ed Rendell declared the day of the concert "Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day."

Her music was reissued. Tribute CDs were cut. And when Tharpe's supporters searched for a nonprofit to sponsor her historical marker, Girls Rock Philly, whose mission is to build community through music creation and collaboration, stepped up as the ideal choice.

Now, Sister Rosetta's big life has found its way right back to Master Street, complete with a marker for a new generation to learn about her.

"I love that it's here. This is a part of history," says Angie McCollum, who lives in Tharpe's home now. The house was passed down to McCollum by her grandmother, Annie Morrison, who married Russell Morrison, Tharpe's third husband, after Sister Rosetta's death.

"I hope," says McCollum, "that the kids stop by and read it."

She looked up at the newly unveiled marker.

It reads in part:

A guitar virtuoso and charismatic performer throughout America and Europe, she toured with Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Benny Goodman. Her home was here.

 


Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Annettejh.

 

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