Title: The Gospel Truth Live
Artist: Marie Knight
Label: M.C. Records
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 23, 2018
Those with at least a passing interest in gospel music are likely familiar with electric guitar- wielding evangelist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who quite unintentionally became known as “the godmother of rock & roll.” In fact, she will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month in recognition of her wide ranging influence on rock music. Fewer, however, may be acquainted with the career of Marie Knight, aside from her brief partnership with Tharpe in the late 1940s which produced the hit songs “Up Above My Head” and “Didn’t It Rain.” Of course Knight’s career encompassed far more than her work with Tharpe. As a child she sang for COGIC congregations throughout the Northeast, went on to record with The Sunset Four, and enjoyed a successful solo career performing and recording gospel as well as R&B music.
Knight stopped singing professionally in 1980, but was lured back into the studio two decades later by Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records, who asked her to record “Didn’t It Rain” for the Rosetta Tharpe tribute album, Shout, Sister, Shout (a companion to the book by Gayle Wald). She went on to record an album of Rev. Gary Davis songs for Carpentieri, who became her manager, and began touring once again. Regrettably, Knight’s newfound success was cut short in 2009 after suffering a stroke, and she died shortly thereafter.
The Gospel Truth Live is Carpentieri’s posthumous tribute to Knight. The album features gems culled from her performance at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ 2007 Gospel Fest, held at the Church Street Center in North Adams, MA. Knight was 87 at the time, one of the last living artists from the “Golden Age” of gospel.
After a lengthy standing ovation, Knight comes on stage and opens with Rev. Gary Davis’s 1935 classic “I Belong to the Band” with the audience enthusiastically clapping along. As the concert continues, Knight segues between the Rev. Davis classics she had recently recorded—“12 Gates to the City,” a rousing “I’ll Fly Away” that gets the audience fired up, and “I Am Light of This World”—and Rosetta Tharpe repertoire including “Beams of Heaven,” “Didn’t It Rain,” and “Up Above My Head.” Granted the latter, accompanied by pianist Dave Keyes, aren’t as lively as the original renditions recorded over 60 years earlier, but Knight still has a fine, powerful contralto voice, capable of leaping registers.
In between songs Knight offers a bit of storytelling and some powerful testifying, offering words of wisdom based on her lived experiences. It’s these short sermons and her engagement with the audience that makes The Gospel Truth Live so unique—that and the fact that it’s Knight’s last recorded performance. The gospel doesn’t live in songs alone, and the context provided by this live performance is most welcome indeed.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss