The next time there is a major gospel quartet concert, Rosetta Thompson will be there in spirit.
Even though Thompson, 80, died Dec. 22, the world that the glitzy impresario exported from the segregated South and promoted for 60 years lives on.
On Dec. 30, Thompson was eulogized at Calvary Baptist Church in Lanham, Maryland, where she held numerous concerts.
Thompson’s family organized the event, which was more musical tribute than somber service.
The venue was filled as the Sensational Nightingales, Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s and other groups crooned while church ladies sported wide brims and dressed to the nines.
“Gospel music was her passion. It was her ministry,” said Horace Thompson, lead singer and bass player for the Sensational Nightingales, speaking in a burst of emotion as he remembered his wife and business partner of more than 60 years.
Thompson, a visual gospel icon well-known for her colorful hats, wardrobes and matching shoes, was the conductor of a vintage gospel caravan who sported a chrome briefcase and always made sure her artists were paid on time.
But sometimes during her programs, she would leave her backroom perch, put on a choir robe and join her children as a member of the Thompson family singers. In her life, she brought the nation’s most famous quartets to venues across the nation’s capital.
The Thompsons have been key players in a blue-collar spiritual musical genre that included such renowned groups as the Gospel Keynotes, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s, Slim and the Supreme Angels and the Swanee Quintet. The family was equally influential on local groups such as the Singing Angels, the Gospel Pearls, the Southern Gospel Singers and the Queens of Faith.
“Rosetta Thompson was and will always be the face of quartet gospel,” said Winston Chaney, an on-air personality at Spirit 1340 AM WYCB. “She was the one who always brought the best and the brightest gospel quartets to the nation’s capital every year. There were groups like the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Gospel Keynote, the Canton Spirituals, Lee Williams and the QC’s and other groups like Slim and the Supreme Angels.”
For years, these melody makers barnstormed across the country in colorful suits, stirring souls with a mix of showmanship, street-corner harmony and a driving beat that was a first cousin to the blues. Chaney, who has been on the air for 39 years, was usually the host of these programs. He said, “just like go-go and R&B, this quartet music has its own sound.”
“Rosetta Thompson was the greatest gospel promoter we ever had,” said Johnathan Shanks, drummer for the Southern Gospel Singers. “She put us on many of programs that included local groups with the top gospel quarters in the country. She always gave the local groups a chance.”
While most such shows take place in school auditoriums, music halls and sanctuaries, Thompson in 1995 held her largest event at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, attracting several thousand fans. While working for The Washington Post, this reporter remembers her wearing a fiery red dress and doling out payments to groups including the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Canton Spirituals, the Sensational Nightingales, the Pilgrim Jubilees and many others.
These were aging men who had lived life on the road, aided by the Green Book, to spread the gospel as they traveled across the segregated South.
“Rosetta was responsible for the advancement and popularity of local and national groups in the DMV,” said gospel recording artist Phil Carter. “There were national groups that would only come to town if she called them. Her influence and ability to sell out events were unique and very successful.”
In 1983, Thompson decided to be more than just the supportive wife of a gospel singer. She formed her own group with her children and her daughter Pat Jones became the lead singer of the seven-member ensemble.
Horace Thompson remembers asking his wife at the time, “Honey, are you sure you can do all this?” She responded, “The more [on the road], the merrier.”
Thompson’s passion for gospel music was forged in an Augusta, Ga., church where her father was the pastor. She had four brothers and three sisters who all sang.
“My daddy pastored four churches,” Thompson, who learned how to fix hair as a child, once said. “My mother had hair down to her waist; I was doing her hair at age 11.”
But in 1958, she packed up and moved north. Like many Southerners in the 1950s, she came to the District because in search of a better life: “I thought it would be a better opportunity.”
Thompson worked as a secretary and met her future husband while headed to a grocery store in D.C. to buy ingredients for a sweet potato pie. She said her attraction deepened when she learned that he was the guitar player who performed with late gospel pioneer Rev. Julius Cheeks.
After their marriage in 1961, Horace Thompson was drafted into the Army, but Rosetta said neither the Vietnam War nor his years singing on the road after the Army kept their family apart.
“I would plan cookouts for when he was home,” she said. “We had good wholesome fun.”
For many years, Horace Thompson averaged two weeks on the road for every week at home. For most of his career, he and the other Nightingales traveled in a Fleetwood Cadillac kept by JoJo Wallace, the group’s legendary lead guitarist, who lives in Durham, N.C.
It takes about five hours to assemble all of the group members, who live in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. But despite her husband’s life on the road, Thompson never complained.
“I understood what he was all about,” she said in 1995. “I loved it.”
Thompson, with a high school diploma and her hairdressing skills, saved enough money to open a salon in Prince George’s County in 1976. Two years later, she opened a second Maryland store, and five years ago, she opened Hair Essence, an 18-booth shop in northeast Washington.
All the while, Thompson kept a burning desire to sing and be with her husband. When asked in 1995 if she had to choose between the two careers, she said without hesitation, “On the road. … It was always in my heart to have my own group together.”