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Rosetta Thompson, owner of three D.C.-area hair boutiques, loved gospel music so much she found the time to exchange her curling iron for a microphone to sing and become a top gospel quartet promoter for more than 50 years.
“Gospel music was her passion. It was her ministry,” says Horace Thompson, lead singer and bass player for the Sensational Nightingales. He reports that his wife of nearly 60 years died on Dec. 22 of natural causes.
Rosetta Thompson was a visual gospel icon from head to toe. She was well known for her colorful hats, wardrobes, and matching shoes. She was the D.C. conductor of a vintage gospel caravan who sported a chrome briefcase who always made sure her artists were paid on time.
But oftentimes during her programs, the mother and grandmother would leave her backroom perch, put on a choir robe, and sing with children as a member of The Thompson Family Singers.
“Rosetta Thompson was and will always be the face of quartet Gospel,” says Winston Chaney, the morning man at Spirit 1340 AM WCYB. “She was the one who always brought the best and the brightest gospel quartets to the nation’s capital every year.”
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Thompson became a key player for a blue collar, spiritual musical genre that included groups with names like the Gospel Keynotes, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s, Slim & the Supreme Angels, The Swanee Quintet, and even more local groups, like The Sensational Singing Angels, the Gospel Pearls, The Southern Gospel Singers, and the Queens of Faith.
For years these gospel melody makers barnstormed across the country in colorful suits to stir people’s 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 and usually is the host of these programs, says, “just like go-go and R&B, this quartet music has its own sound.”
While most of the events take place in school auditoriums, music halls, and sanctuaries, in 1995 Thompson held her largest event at the Show Place Arena & Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro that attracted several thousand fans. A reporter for the Washington Postat the time, I covered the conference and I remember her wearing a fiery red dress and doling out payments to the groups that included the Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Canton Spirituals, the Sensational Nightingales, the Pilgrim Jubilees, and many more.
These were aging men who had lived life on the road, aided by the Green Book, to bring music to the Dixie 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 after hearing about her death. “There were national groups that would only come to town if she called them. Her influence and ability to sell out events was unique and very successful.”
On Dec. 30, Thompson will be eulogized at the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church In Lanham where she had so many concerts.
Thompson’s passion for gospel music was forged in an Augusta, Georgia, church where her father was the pastor. She had four brothers and three sisters and they all sang. “My daddy pastored four churches,” Thompson told me in 1995. She learned how to fix hair as a child. “My mother had hair down to her waist; I was doing her hair at age 11.”
But in 1958, as a teenager, she packed up and moved north. Like many southerners in the 1950s, she came to D.C. because she was in search of a better life and better opportunities.
Thompson worked as a secretary, and she met her future husband while headed to a grocery store 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 the 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. We had good wholesome fun,” she said.
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 Joseph “JoJo” Wallace in Durham, North Carolina. But Rosetta Thompson never complained. “I understood what he was all about,” she told me 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. She later opened Hair Essence, an 18-booth shop in Northeast D.C.
In 1983, Rosetta 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 group. Horace Thompson responded to his wife by saying, “Honey, are you sure you can do all this?” and Rosetta Thompson responded by saying, “The more [on the road] the merrier.” When asked 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.”
Rosetta Thompson may have spoken in soft tones, but from her long gray Lincoln Town Car to her elegant look, she was style and even more substance. She always had postcards advertising the next concert. She embraced technology and had radio and TV shows, but she preferred old fashioned methods, distributing cards on one car windshield at a time. She will be missed.