Michael T. Regan
Why did Bob Merz work so hard to get a headstone placed at the grave of gospel-blues legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe? For one thing, he's a fan. Tharpe, though hardly a household name these days, was a musical pioneer who inspired everybody from Johnny Cash to Little Richard with her dazzling guitar playing, emotive singing and witty song-writing. She deserved better than an unmarked plot in North Philly's Northwood Cemetery.
For another thing, he wants the people of this city to be fans, too.
"Philly is always looking for a champion and someone to hold on to. We really hold close those who help put our city on the map. Rosetta Tharpe is one of those people that we should say, 'she is ours,'" says Merz, who helped raise money for the headstone with a benefit concert featuring Dixie Hummingbirds, Odetta and others at the Keswick last January. The stone was quietly put in place in September. "Rosetta Tharpe is a Philadelphian."
Much like Edgar Allan Poe, there is grounds for a kind of custody battle when it comes to the once internationally renowned singer. Tharpe was born in Arkansas and mostly raised in Chicago. She didn't set up shop at Bright Hope Baptist Church at 12th and Cecil B. Moore until much later. "She spent her last 15 years in Philly," says Merz. "And if her health did not fail would have been here for 50 years — like the Dixie Hummingbirds."
Merz has said he'd like to see Tharpe get a mural in her honor and a star on Broad Street. "We are working on placing a historical marker at her 11th and Master home to heighten her profile in the Yorktown North Philly neighborhood," he says. "The marker has been approved, and we will soon start a fundraising drive. When the marker is in place, just imagine if one kid sees it and says, 'Wow, Sister Rosetta lived here — I would love to follow her footsteps and rock the world.'"