In 1951, rock & roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe married her soon-to-be manager Russell Morrison in front of 25,000 paying customers at Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium. Though the marriage was for show, Tharpe’s very public nuptials became an early stadium rock event.
By this time, Tharpe had been a recording artist for over a decade. She helped popularize gospel music and became widely notable for her guitar playing, emerging as one of the instrument’s first real heroes. Her songs like “Rock Me” and “The Lonesome Road” would go on to have an undeniable impact on popular music, inspiring the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Music historian Gayle Wald, who wrote a biography of Tharpe titled Shout, Sister, Shout!, told NPR in 2019 that by the late Forties, the icon’s career had started to take a bit of a popularity dip. The wedding turned out to be the perfect PR stunt: Many Washington, D.C., stadiums were being used for massive evangelical religious events and concert promoters encouraged the sacred event of matrimony to be the next step.
The promoters gave Tharpe one year to find a husband, and according to Wald it’s unclear if she knew Russell Morrison for long before they married. The wedding itself turned into the type of massive spectacle we’ve seen televised for stars nowadays, full of fireworks and expensive accoutrements. Her dress cost $800, as much as a car cost back then. She purchased it from the department store Thalhimer’s in Richmond, Virginia, where she had been previously arrested for “shopping while black.”
The legally binding wedding — audio of which can be heard above — featured Tharpe’s back-up singers as her bridesmaids and followed the ceremony with a live show for the audience, who were in on the theatrics of the stunt. Tharpe’s joke wedding ended up lasting the long haul: Morrison would end up becoming her manager and they stayed together until the star died in 1973.