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Summary Article: Dorsey, Thomas
From Encyclopedia of American Religious History

(b. 1899–d. 1993)

gospel music composer

Born on July 1, 1899 in Villa Rica, Georgia, Thomas Dorsey would become the most influential composer of gospel music in the twentieth century. Known as the “father of black gospel music,” Dorsey infused Christian hymnody with the emotions and inflections of the blues and helped to establish one of the most powerful and distinctive American musical genres.

Although the son of a minister, Dorsey's early musical career was far removed from his Christian upbringing. He learned to play the piano and organ from his mother, herself an accomplished musician. In the nightclubs of Atlanta, however, he learned the rhythms and syncopation of the blues and jazz and soon began a career as a blues and jazz musician. After moving to Chicago, he continued his music training at the Chicago College of Composition and Arranging. Dorsey also worked for Paramount Records.

A denizen of Chicago's famous blues clubs, he was in great demand as a performer throughout the 1920s. Performing and recording under various names including Barrelhouse Tom, Texas Tommy, and Georgia Tom, Dooley worked with some of the most famous black musicians of the time, including Ma Rainey, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Tampa Red, with whom he recorded Tight Like That, a song that would go on to sell over 7 million copies. Dorsey is credited with nearly 500 jazz and blues compositions.

During his time in Chicago, Dorsey began to experience serious psychic conflicts between his professional work and his faith. Torn between his mother's urging that he give up the blues and secular music and his lucrative career, Dorsey experienced what his physician described as a nervous breakdown so severe that he was unable to compose music or even practice the piano. Later in life, Dorsey would look back on this time positively, referring to it as a “God interruption.”

His mother helped nurse Dorsey back to health, all the time urging him to give up the “devil's music,” as religious folk often referred to jazz and the blues. The “devil's music” paid the bills, however, and following his recovery, Dorsey returned to performing and composing jazz and blues. His mother's pleading had some influence and it was during this time, that Dorsey began to write and perform his original religious music.

The psychic tensions between the sacred and secular soon had their effect on Dorsey and he again experienced a debilitating breakdown. This time the depression was so intense that he contemplated suicide. At the urging of his sister, Dorsey attended her church where he was accosted directly by the minister who told him, “Dorsey, the Lord has too much work for you to do to let you die.” The pastor, according to Dorsey's own report, then performed a spiritual healing, purportedly pulling a serpent from Dorsey's throat. This experience, coupled with the death of friend was, according to tradition, the occasion for Dorsey's gospel composition “If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me.” This would be his first blues inflected gospel song and the beginning of a musical genre so dominated by Dorsey, that songs written in that style became known as “dorseys.”

Not all African-American churches were ready for his style. Historically disdainful of the blues as the “devil's music” and a reflection of the lower economic and social status from which they wanted to lift themselves and their congregants, many pastors and choir directors refused to incorporate Dorsey's music into their worship services.

This changed in 1931, when Chicago's Ebenezer Baptist Church (not to be confused with the home church of Martin Luther King Sr., and Jr. in Atlanta) hired Dorsey as choir director. The following year he moved to Pilgrim Baptist Church, the second largest African-American church in Chicago. In that year (1932), however, tragedy struck Dorsey when his wife died in childbirth, followed by his newborn son a few days later. His despair and grief led Dorsey to write his most famous song, Precious Lord, Take My Hand.

Hundreds of singers, both black and white, recorded the song, across numerous genres. Among those who had hits with Precious Lord were Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Jim Reeves, and Johnny Cash. The song was a favorite hymn of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson and both requested it be sung at their funerals. Mahalia Jackson performed the song at King's funeral.

Like Precious Lord, Dorsey's second most recorded song, Peace in the Valley, which he wrote for Mahalia Jackson in 1937, became a standard gospel hymn crossing denominational and racial barriers. His professional partnership with Jackson continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s, forming what many consider the golden age of gospel music.

Dorsey was both a superb composer and performer and an astute businessman and entrepreneur. Disgusted with the treatment of black composers and performers by the established publishing houses, he founded Dorsey House of Music, the first black owned publishing company for gospel music. Dorsey formed and managed his own gospel choir and founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses for which he served as president until 1983.

Dorsey's music has become a staple of Christian worship throughout the English-speaking world and his songs appear in most denomination hymnals, a far cry from the time when he was, in his words, “thrown out of some of the best churches in America.” 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.

Dorsey died in Chicago, Illinois on January 23, 1993 and, fittingly, is buried in the Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago's Southside, the center of its blues culture.

Further Information
  • Harris, Michael W. The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church (Oxford University Press New York, 1992).
  • Heilbut, Tony. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (Proscenium Publishers New York, 2004).
  • Boyer, Horace Clarence. How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (Elliott and Clark Washington, D.C., 1995).
  • Reagon, Bernice Johnson. If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition (University of Nebraska Press Lincoln, 2001).
  • Edward L. Queen II
    Copyright © 2018 Queen, Edward L., II, Prothero, Stephen R. and Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr.

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