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Benefit to ring with the memory of a gospel great

The Keswick's Sister Rosetta Tharpe concert features Odetta, Willa Ward and many others.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the '67 Newport Folk Festival.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the '67 Newport Folk Festival.Read moreDIANA DAVIES

'It will be great because Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a great artist," Marie Knight was saying over the phone from her New York home.

Knight, 82, was talking about the concert scheduled for tonight at Glenside's Keswick Theatre in honor of the late electric-guitar-wielding gospel dynamo and proto-rocker.

Joining Knight on the bill for this gospel extravaganza will be the Dixie Hummingbirds, Willa Ward with the Johnny Thompson Singers, the Huff Singers, and Odetta.

None of those artists had as close a relationship with Tharpe as Knight did. For 22 years, beginning in 1946, the two were musical partners, with Knight matching her alto to Tharpe's soprano on such rollicking classics as "Didn't It Rain" and "Up Above My Head."

"We got along - those were beautiful years," Knight recalls. She eventually left Tharpe, she says, only because she felt it was time to go on her own.

While she has never stopped singing, Knight's record-making has been more sporadic. She returned in a big way last year, however, with the acclaimed Let Us Get Together, a collection of gospel numbers by the Rev. Gary Davis that featured Larry Campbell, a guitarist best known for his work with Bob Dylan.

Gov. Rendell proclaimed today Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania. Proceeds from tonight's concert will provide for a memorial at Tharpe's unmarked gravesite in Philadelphia's Northwood Cemetery - she lived in the city for more than 15 years, and died in 1973 - and the money will also go toward music scholarship programs at Temple University's Music Prep and Settlement Music School.

Speaking last Friday, Knight was fatigued from a just-completed tour, but she also was looking forward to tonight's event and seeing the other performers - she has recorded with the Dixie Hummingbirds but hasn't seen them in quite some time.

Given the lineup of great gospel talent, there's a good chance the audience reaction will be much like the one Knight experienced on her recent tour:

"The older [audience members] became young, and the young people just clap their hands. It's very radiant."