'The Most Elaborate Wedding Ever Staged': Rosetta Tharpe At Griffith Stadium In 1951, gospel star Rosetta Tharpe got married in front of thousands of fans at a baseball stadium. In some ways, says biographer Gayle Wald, it set the template for today's stadium rock concerts.
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'The Most Elaborate Wedding Ever Staged': Rosetta Tharpe At Griffith Stadium

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'The Most Elaborate Wedding Ever Staged': Rosetta Tharpe At Griffith Stadium

'The Most Elaborate Wedding Ever Staged': Rosetta Tharpe At Griffith Stadium

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On a summer day in 1951, some 20,000 people packed into a baseball stadium in Washington, D.C.,...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome you to Griffith Stadium.

SHAPIRO: ...To watch a wedding.


SAMUEL KELSEY: My friends, we are gathered here this evening on a very fine occasion.

SHAPIRO: The bride was gospel music superstar Sister Rosetta Tharpe.


SISTER ROSETTA THARPE: (Singing) I know you don't like my song, but I done spoke my mind.

SHAPIRO: And this ceremony/spectacle paved the way for the kind of epic stadium concerts that virtually every pop star does today.

Music historian Gayle Wald wrote a biography of Rosetta Tharpe, and she is here to tell us the story as part of NPR's series, Turning the Tables. Welcome.

GAYLE WALD: So happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: Before we get to this utterly bizarre wedding, remind us who Sister Rosetta Tharpe was and where she was in her career in 1951.

WALD: Yeah, Rosetta Tharpe was the first person to popularize black gospel music and bring it into the secular realm.

SHAPIRO: She played an electric guitar while she sang, right?

WALD: She played an electric guitar when she sang. She started recording for Decca Records in 1938.


THARPE: (Singing) You hold me in the bosom until the storms of life is over. Rock me in the cradle...

WALD: She always marketed herself as a gospel musician, but she played for all different kinds of audiences. By 1951, when the wedding took place, she had been through several phases of her career. She had fronted a popular swing band led by Lucky Millinder. She had had a big hit in 1946 with a song called "Strange Things Happening Every Day," which would later be important to Elvis Presley.


THARPE: (Singing) If you want to view the climb, you must learn to quit your lying. There are strange things happening every day.

WALD: And she had also teamed up with a younger singer named Marie Knight. And Marie and Rosetta toured together for several years in the late '40s and were very popular as a duet. They were women who toured without men because Rosetta played piano and guitar, and Marie played piano. And they harmonized, and they were their own show.

SHAPIRO: Some people in the present day had even described Sister Rosetta Tharpe as a queer icon.

WALD: That's right. When I was writing the book, there was a lot of discussion about Rosetta's attraction to men and women. No one wanted to go on the record about it, but everyone wanted to talk about it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WALD: I should say that Marie Knight, who I interviewed for the book many times, went on record telling me that those rumors were untrue.

SHAPIRO: Well, by 1951, Sister Rosetta Tharpe had been married twice, I believe.

WALD: That's right.

SHAPIRO: And this marriage in a stadium in front of 20,000 people was basically - what? - like a PR stunt, right?

WALD: Totally. She was looking for a way to boost her career. There were some concert promoters in D.C. who had an idea of using the baseball stadium, which had been used by African Americans in D.C. for revivals. And they thought, well, we've done revivals there, and it's a place where there are shows. Let's put it all together. She's not an evangelist, but let's have something close to that. We'll have a sacred ceremony. Let's do a wedding.

SHAPIRO: But they didn't have a groom.

WALD: She went out and found one.

SHAPIRO: It was, like, in the contract that she had one year to find a man to marry.

WALD: Yeah. It's unclear whether she knew Russell Morrison before.


KELSEY: Russell, since you've met Rosetta, have you had any trouble with her that you feel that you shouldn't marry her this evening?


SHAPIRO: And the wedding had, like, the trappings of a stadium show, from fireworks to a wedding dress that cost what a car would have cost in 1954.

WALD: Exactly. And there's good stories about both of those. In particular, the wedding dress is important. Rosetta Tharpe bought it. She was then living in Richmond, Va. And she then bought it at the most important department store in Richmond, which was Thalhimers. At the time, black women couldn't go into a department store and buy off the rack. They couldn't try clothes on. She had already been arrested for shopping while black in the late '40s at Thalhimers, when she tried to pay for a fur coat with cash.

So it was important that she purchased an $800 wedding dress from Thalhimers and even more important that the store sent the dress up in its own car, and the fitter was a white woman. And the people who are around Rosetta Tharpe at that time remember that it was extraordinary that she was fitted in the dress by a white woman who had to button up all the little satin buttons on the back.

SHAPIRO: The event itself was such a spectacle. Can you just give us a sense of what it felt like to be in that stadium?

WALD: So there was a stage on second base.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WALD: They had a big platform set up.


KELSEY: It's my duty as a minister of the gospel to come perform this ceremony here.

WALD: The musicians, who had accompanied Rosetta Tharpe or were invited guests, were playing the roles of the wedding party. And there was a local preacher from Washington, D.C. who came in to do it. He was a little flippant in marrying them. He was known as a joker. He made kind of jokes from the stage.


KELSEY: I know how to marry people. I know how to put them together. If they don't stay together, it's not my fault.

SHAPIRO: Even though the whole thing was a stunt, it was a legally binding wedding.

WALD: It was, absolutely. They married according to D.C. statute.


KELSEY: To love.

THARPE: To love.

KELSEY: To cherish.

THARPE: To cherish.

KELSEY: And to obey.

THARPE: And to obey.

SHAPIRO: They are laughing.

WALD: What's amazing about it is that's got this, like, kind of feminist piece to it, where even the women - it's a primarily female audience - recognize that the rituals of marriage and the - especially there's giggles at the obey part. There's a kind of...

SHAPIRO: Because if anyone is going to obey anyone in that marriage...

WALD: (Laughter) Right.

SHAPIRO: She's not going to be the one obeying him, yeah.

WALD: Exactly. Who's the star? When - later on in Rosetta and Russell's marriage, when they would send out Christmas cards, they said Mr. and Mrs. Rosetta Tharpe Morrison. So we knew who was in charge in that relationship.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: At this time, we're going to bring to you the one and only Sister Rosetta Tharpe Morrison now.

SHAPIRO: So once they tie the knot, then the show starts.


THARPE: (Singing) Don't you know it's so high. (Unintelligible) so, so low. Well, well, it's so high. Oh, yes.

SHAPIRO: How unusual was a concert of this magnitude in 1951?

WALD: Right. The Beatles didn't play Shea Stadium until 1965. And so it's possible to argue this is an early stadium rock concert, or an early stadium pop concert, at least.

SHAPIRO: Like when Beyonce headlines Coachella or Kanye performs on a floating stage, like, that is a descendant of this wedding.

WALD: Let me just say, too, that there's a confluence of things going on here because the stadium had been used for massive religious revivals, which themselves contain spectacles - so mass baptisms that included fireworks and costuming and music. And so there's a way that those two traditions - the kind of spectacle of entertainment and the spectacle of religious observance - come together. It was a confluence of the two.



THARPE: (Singing) Well, well, well, well, I know we don't like it. I think God, he don't like. I'm so glad he don't like it.

SHAPIRO: And I have to ask whether the marriage lasted.

WALD: The marriage lasted.

SHAPIRO: It did?

WALD: It did.

SHAPIRO: For how long?

WALD: Until Rosetta Tharpe died in 1973.

SHAPIRO: Unbelievable. Well, it just goes to show - you spend your whole life looking for somebody, and then you get a contract that you have to find a groom within a year, and that's the one that sticks.

WALD: And maybe three was the charm.

SHAPIRO: Third time's the charm.

WALD: That's right.

SHAPIRO: Gayle Wald is a music historian at George Washington University. And she's the author of "Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe." Thanks for sharing the story with us.

WALD: Thanks so much.


THARPE: (Singing) ...Know he don't like it. No, no, and I'm so glad he don't like it. No, no, and I think God, he don't like it.

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