Thomas A. Dorsey
As formulated by Dorsey, gospel music combines Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and the blues. His conception also deviates from what had been, to that time, standard hymnal practice by referring explicitly to the self, and the self’s relation to faith and God, rather than the individual subsumed into the group via belief.
Dorsey, who was born in Villa Rica, Georgia, was the music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago from 1932 until the late 1970s. His best known composition, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord“, was performed by Mahalia Jackson and was a favorite of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.. Another composition, “Peace in the Valley“, was a hit for Red Foley in 1951 and has been performed by dozens of other artists, including Queen of Gospel Albertina Walker, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Dorsey died in Chicago, aged 93.
In 2002, the Library of Congress honored his album Precious Lord: New Recordings of the Great Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey (1973), by adding it to the United States National Recording Registry.
Life and career
Dorsey’s father was a minister and his mother a piano teacher. He learned to play blues piano as a young man. After studying music formally in Chicago, he became an agent for Paramount Records. He put together a band for Ma Rainey called the “Wild Cats Jazz Band” in 1924.
He started out playing at rent parties with the names Barrelhouse Tom and Texas Tommy, but he was most famous as Georgia Tom. As Georgia Tom, he teamed up with Tampa Red (Hudson Whittaker) with whom he recorded the raunchy 1928 hit record “Tight Like That”, a sensation, eventually selling seven million copies. In all, he is credited with more than 400 blues and jazz songs.
Dorsey began recording gospel music alongside blues in the mid 1920s. This led to his performing at the National Baptist Convention in 1930, and becoming the bandleader of two churches in the early 1930s.
His first wife, Nettie, who had been Rainey’s wardrobe mistress, died in childbirth in 1932. Two days later the child, a son, also died. In his grief, he wrote his most famous song, one of the most famous of all gospel songs, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”.
Unhappy with the treatment received at the hands of established publishers, Dorsey opened the first black gospel music publishing company, Dorsey House of Music. He also founded his own gospel choir and was a founder and first president of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
His influence was not limited to African American music, as white musicians also followed his lead. “Precious Lord” has been recorded by Albertina Walker, Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Clara Ward, Dorothy Norwood, Jim Reeves, Roy Rogers, and Tennessee Ernie Ford, among hundreds of others. It was a favorite gospel song of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and was sung at the rally the night before his assassination, and, per his request, at his funeral by Mahalia Jackson. It was also a favorite of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who requested it to be sung at his funeral. Dorsey was also a great influence on other Chicago-based gospel artists such as Albertina Walker and The Caravans and Little Joey McClork.
Dorsey wrote “Peace in the Valley” for Mahalia Jackson in 1937, which also became a gospel standard. He was the first African American elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and also the first in the Gospel Music Association‘s Living Hall of Fame. In 2007, he was inducted as a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana. His papers are preserved at Fisk University, along with those of W.C. Handy, George Gershwin, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Dorsey’s works have proliferated beyond performance, into the hymnals of virtually all American churches and of English-speaking churches worldwide.
Thomas was a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
He died in Chicago, Illinois and was interred there in the Oak Woods Cemetery.