“The Father of Black Gospel Music”
Thomas Dorsey was born in Villa Rica, Georgia on July 1, 1899. His father was a Baptist minister and his mother worked as a music teacher and served as the church organist. His mother taught him how to play the piano. After moving to Atlanta, due to economic struggles, Thomas’ father had to stop pastoring and became a laborer and his mother worked as a domestic servant. This change during childhood caused Dorsey to lose his connection to the church.
Dorsey’s father was an itinerant preacher and his mother was the church organist. Together they would produce what would later become known as the father of gospel music.
Thomas A. Dorsey attained his education from the classrooms of Villa Roca and Atlanta in Georgia. As the child of a preacher Thomas attended elementary school where he would learn academics and observe the benefits associated with being the child of a preacher. People all around made much of Thomas because he was the preacher’s son.
Watching his father preach was another lesson for a growing Thomas. As all good preachers of his time, his father had a flair for the dramatic in his preaching, the use of “call and response” where the preacher makes a statement and the congregants respond. The respect his father received from the congregants was not lost on Thomas.
In the gritty rooms of performance halls, Thomas received some of his most valued lessons. By age of eight, he learned to play the organ from his mother, but he learned the syncopations of blues and jazz when he visited the night clubs of Atlanta, where musicians taught him their techniques for playing the piano.
To further his musical career, Thomas Dorsey would eventually leave Atlanta and move to Chicago, an epicenter of jazz and blues. There he learned to master piano playing.
Thomas’s love for music would take him outside the church to the jazz and blues halls of Chicago. His childhood Christian teachings conflicted with his striving in secular world where he made a living for himself playing at rent parties and composing blues songs.
His mother often advised him to stop playing secular music and “serve the Lord.” He ignored her pleas and at twenty- one years old found himself playing for Ma Rainey, a noted blues performer. His talents also led him to a position as arranger for the Chicago Music Publishing, Inc and Vocalion Records.
SWALLOWED BY THE WHALE OF SECULAR MUSIC
God had been calling Dorsey to the world of sacred music, and much like Jonah, Dorsey would resist the call. As a result, like Jonah, he, too, would be swallowed up. Dorsey was in Chicago in 1920 at the time when blues music was peaking. Dorsey’s skills were in high demand at night. During the day he worked other jobs and continued to use any spare time he had to study music. Working around the clock, Dorsey had been swallowed up by the blues, both literally and figuratively.
He had reached a point in his life when he could not produce the lyrics or the music he so easily created in the past. In fact, he could do nothing at all. He could not practice, compose or perform. The doctors called it a nervous breakdown; Dorsey called it a “God interruption.” His mother traveled to Chicago to nurse him back to health.
During this time, his mother advised him to select the divine music over the devil’s. However, once he recuperated, he returned to the music that paid—the music of jazz and the blues. The conflict between Dorsey’s secular and spiritual strivings would not rest, causing him so much anguish and despair that he could no longer perform his duties in either realm. During this second “God interruption,” he was in so much despair that he considered suicide. As a remedy, his sister-in-law invited him to her church and the pastor there told him, “Dorsey, the Lord has too much work for you to do to let you die.” (Harris, p. 96) Then the pastor pulled a serpent from Dorsey’s throat. This supernatural experience coupled with the death of a neighbor inspired Dorsey to write his first gospel blues song entitled “If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me.” He was on his way to recovery.
From 1928-1931, Dorsey tried to sell his gospel music to local churches only to discover they would not embrace the sacred music he infused with blues and jazz syncopations. The African-American church which had successfully incorporated European sacred classics into its Sunday morning worship service refused to consider incorporating Dorsey’s music into its services. His music did not reflect the class and culture preachers were trying to promote in their conservative churches. Reluctantly, he returned to what he knew best –composing secular music.
Though immersed in composing the secular, Dorsey still had one foot in the gospel world and continued to compose gospel songs.
In 1932, while in Indianapolis organizing a choir, Dorsey received tragic news. His wife and son died in childbirth. Thomas turned to the one source of comfort that he knew – the piano. A mystical experience occurred. As his hands hovered over the keys, a strange sensation took over him, and he began to play a melody and the accompanying words followed. From this experience, he composed, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” his most famous gospel classic sung in churches across America. Dorsey always maintained that this song came from God himself.
Dorsey knew that when he heard a minister named Rev.W. M. Nix, emotional singing at a conference in 1921, he wanted to be just like him. Though initially, he attempted to live in both worlds, in 1930, he finally heeded his mother’s advice and immersed himself in the gospel tradition. He attained a position at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago where he organized one of the first gospel choirs. He also founded the first gospel publishing house by African American composers. By organizing the first National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1932, he nationalized the gospel music tradition.
Dorsey originally performed under the name of Georgia Tom. He was a leading Blues pianist and his best-selling record was the hit “Tight Like That” recorded in 1928 with Tampa Red. The song sold over seven million copies. He served as Ma Rainey’s jazz band leader in the early 1920’s and put together the “Wild Cats Jazz band” for her. Nettie Harper, Rainey’s wardrobe mistress, eventually became Dorsey’s first wife. Earlier in his career, Tom played piano regularly in Al Capone’s speakeasies and in other Chicago after hour spots where he was known as the “Whispering Piano Player”. This nickname was given to him because he was adept at playing soft enough at the parties to keep from drawing police attention.
Thomas A. Dorsey is credited with publishing over 400 jazz and blues songs and composed hundreds more.
Mr. Dorsey’s most famous composition, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was composed during the grief he suffered after his first wife, Nettie Harper, died during childbirth and his first son, Thomas Andrew Jr., died two weeks later. This horrific event coupled with several nervous breakdowns where he contemplated suicide led to Dorsey committing himself entirely to gospel music and the Lord’s work.
Thomas Dorsey established the first Black gospel publishing company, Dorsey’s House of Music in 1932 after growing dissatisfied with the way the music publishing industry treated African-American composers. He was the founder and first president of the National Convention of Gospel Choir and Choruses. An organization that still exists today with a stated goal of fostering an appreciation of Gospel music and developing the spiritual growth of its membership.
Considered the Father of Black Gospel Music, Dorsey was one of the first to combine Christian praise with rhythms of jazz and blues. He is even credited with devising the phrase “Gospel Music”. In the beginning, many mainstream churches rejected his songs. He spoke many times about being “thrown out of some of the best churches in America” where the pastor’s labeled his gospel songs as “Devil Music”.
Dorsey was the first African-American elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Association’s Living Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in 2007. His composition papers, the Thomas A. Dorsey Archives, are located at Fisk University where his collection joined those of W. C. Handy, George Gershwin, and the Jubilee Singers.
Thomas Dorsey was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He also served as Music Director of Pilgrim Baptist Church (Chicago, IL) from 1932 to the late 1970’s. In 2006, a significant part of his church was destroyed by fire. The congregation is raising funds to rebuild this historic church whose existence dates back to 1921.
His song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was sung at a rally the night before King was assassinated and at the funeral of Dr. King and President Lyndon B. Johnson per their request.
Thomas A. Dorsey was greatly influenced by the talented entertainers who performed at the 81 Theater, a prestigious venue in Atlanta’s Black Entertainment District (Decatur Street). He started working there as an usher at the age of 11 after dropping out of school to help support his family. Dorsey is responsible for discovering and nurturing the career of the world’s first gospel superstar, Mahalia Jackson.
He discovered her at the age of seventeen. Together they ushered in what became known as the “Golden Age of Gospel Music”. She had the perfect blend of Blues presence and spirituality to sing his new more emotive gospels. Mahalia’s two biggest songs and future gospel standards “Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley” were composed by Dorsey.
Rev. Dorsey made his transition at the age of 93 in Chicago, Illinois on January 23, 1993. He is interred in the Oak Woods Cemetery in the Southside of Chicago (Illinois).
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