(June 1, 1925 – August 30, 2009)
It was 1946. Marie Knight was fresh out of the church when she paired up with guitar-slinging gospel goddess Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The two complemented each other nicely. Their high-energy version of Didn’t it Rain is a perfect duet. Listen for Knight’s contralto providing a sinful counterweight to Sister Rosetta’s saintly high register.
Together they were quite an act. But Marie had her own room-filling voice. The devil on Sister Rosetta’s shoulder wanted to go it alone. They split up amid rumors that they were more than just partners on stage. So with Sister Rosetta’s modest manners out of the way, Marie could branch out from gospel into the sexier side of soul.
Listen to her moan on this early sixties number. The howls of the sinning gospel singer on “To Be Loved by You.” Marie Knight, 1962.
Born Marie Roach in Sanford, Florida in 1920 (though she said 1925), Marie Knight grew up in Newark, New Jersey. A member of the Church of God in Christ, like many of the most potent voices of all time, Marie grew up singing in the church.
She recorded for the first time in 1946, as a member of the Sunset Four, a male gospel quartet. Shortly thereafter she booked a solo show on a bill with Mahalia Jackson. In the audience was a young Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who quickly invited Knight to join her on tour. Tharpe said she heard something special in Knight’s contralto voice—a perfect complement to her own saintly soprano. Knight and Tharpe recorded together throughout the forties, topping the charts with hits like “Didn’t it Rain” and “Up Above my Head.” Together they’d break out of the gospel charts and through to the R&B charts—largely due to Knight’s modern sensibilities. The duo split in 1951, amid rumors that they were partners off-stage and in the bedroom as well, though they’d remain close friends until Tharpe’s death in 1973.
Marie’s solo career began with a couple gospel albums, before she switched to secular R&B music in the late fifties, to keep up with market demand. She recorded throughout the fifties and into the sixties, adapting to changing musical tastes by delving into some gritty soul tracks. She left the music scene in the mid-sixties, and began working for a telephone company. After Tharpe’s death in 1973, she returned, but she decided she’d quit secular music and recorded a gospel album called “Marie Knight: Today.” She made another comeback in 2002, appearing on a Tharpe tribute album, and release a full-length record in 2007. She died two years later, 2009, in Harlem, NY.