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Composer, songwriter, singer, pianist, music publisher
Thomas A. Dorsey, often called the Father of Gospel Music, migrated from Atlanta to Chicago as a young man, thus exemplifying the experience of many southern blacks of his day. This journey is also critical to an understanding of what Michael W. Harris called “the rise of gospel blues” in his book of that title, which chronicles the role Dorsey’s music played in urban churches.
There was a great deal of early resistance to Dorsey’s work, partly because it was rooted in the rural southern African-American culture from which the old-line urban churches sought to distance themselves in favor of assimilation. These churches discouraged expressive congregational participation and attempted to incorporate white church traditions in both service and music. In addition, the blues factor of the gospel blues equation had associations with secular venues and activities often discouraged by the church. It is perhaps Dorsey’s greatest achievement that he was able to overcome this opposition and thus preserve important aspects of black musical expression as it had existed in both the spiritual and secular realms.
Dorsey, one of five children, was born in Villa Rica, Georgia, but soon moved with his family to Atlanta. His father was a Baptist minister with a flamboyant pulpit style, and his mother played a portable organ and piano wherever the elder Dorsey preached. Young Dorsey was also influenced musically by his mother’s brother, an itinerant blues musician, and by her brother-in-law, a teacher who favored shaped note singing—also known as “fasola” (fa-so-la), a rambunctious, 19th-century congregational style propagated by songbooks and popular in the rural South in which four distinct shapes (the diamond, for one) correspond to specific notes on the musical scale. In The Rise of Gospel Blues Harris noted, “Other than slave spirituals, the white Protestant hymns and shaped note music, Dorsey describes a type of ’moaning’ as the only other style of religious song he recalls.” He left school early and was soon hanging around theaters and dance halls. His association with musicians there encouraged him to practice at home on his mother’s organ, and by age 12, he claimed that he could play the piano very well. Before long he was earning money playing at private parties and bordellos. In order to improve his skills and identify himself as a professional, he briefly took piano lessons from a teacher associated with Morehouse College, as well as a harmony course at the college itself.
A Migrant Musician
Eventually Dorsey’s desire to become a professional musician motivated him to move to Philadelphia, in 1916, but his plans soon changed and he settled in Chicago, then abuzz with both migrant workers and migrant musicians. According to Harris, by then Dorsey’s piano style was already somewhat out of vogue. He was, however, able to work, though he remained on the periphery of the music community, held back, Harris observed, by both his lack of technique and repertoire, which prevented him from joining the union, and the sheer size and wealth of the musical community. In order to increase his chances for employment, he enrolled in the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging and thus, for the rest of his life, was able to find work as a composer and arranger. By 1920, Dorsey was prospering, but the demanding schedule of playing at night, working at other jobs during the day, and studying in between led him to the first of two nervous breakdowns; he was so ill that his mother had to go to Chicago to bring him back to Atlanta.
Dorsey returned to Chicago in 1921, and his uncle encouraged him to attend the National Baptist Convention. There he was impressed by the singing of W. M. Nix. As Dorsey related in The Rise of Gospel Blues: “My inner-being was thrilled. My soul was a deluge of divine rapture; my emotions were aroused; my heart was inspired to become a great singer and worker in the Kingdom of the Lord—and impress people just as this great singer did that Sunday morning.” Dorsey soon began composing sacred songs and took a job as director of music at New Hope Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, where he described the congregation’s singing of spirituals “like down home,” noting that the congregants also clapped to his music.
But Dorsey’s conversion was fleeting; he was soon playing with the Whispering Syncopators, making a salary commensurate with professional theater musicians. As the popularity of the blues increased in New York and Chicago, especially among non-black audiences, Dorsey was able to adapt his style to the tastes of the day, though singers like Bessie Smith, who embodied the southern tradition, were also popular, especially among black Americans.
In 1924, Dorsey made his debut as “Georgia Tom” with Ma Rainey at the Grand Theater and continued to tour with her, even after he wed in 1925, until he suffered the second of his breakdowns in 1926. The pressures of touring overwhelmed him, and Dorsey considered suicide. His sister-in-law convinced him to attend church, and, while at a service, he had a vision, after which he pledged to work for the Lord. It was not long before he penned his first gospel blues, “If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me,” which was inspired by the death of a friend.
Doing the Lord’s Work
But the Lord’s work would not be easy for him. Dorsey’s background convinced him that the same experiences that had engendered secular blues should also inform church music. As he said in The Rise of Gospel Blues: “If a woman has lost a man, a man has lost a woman, his feeling reacts to the blues; he feels like expressing it. The same thing acts for a gospel song. Now you’re not singing blues; you’re singing gospel, good news song, singing about the Creator; but it’s the same feeling, a grasping of the heart.” In a purely musical sense, to Dorsey, the blues was merely a collection of improvisational techniques. Nevertheless, imparting a bluesy feel to a traditional arrangement was shocking to many, though Dorsey was able to vary the effect depending on his audience and their reaction. He was soon making printed copies of his gospel blues, but since he relied on the performer to embellish the music, they did not sell well. Before long he was back to writing and performing secular blues, and in 1928, “It’s Tight Like That” became a hit, selling seven million copies.
Although Dorsey claimed to have been thrown out of some of the best churches, Harris observed that the time was right for Dorsey’s eventual success; there were increasing numbers of store-front churches that appealed to southern migrants, and there was a booming trade in recorded sermons of the type Dorsey’s father might have delivered. Harris even linked the blues soloist to the preacher, as each embodies the yearning of a people and manifests that yearning principally through improvisation. There were also a growing number of influential choirs in Chicago challenging the musical norms of the established churches, though Dorsey was usually more associated with the rise of the solo tradition. Indeed, in the late 1920s, he would begin work with one of the great gospel soloists of all time, Mahalia Jackson. According to Dorsey, she asked him to coach her, and for two months they worked together on technique and repertoire. They would tour together in the 1940s.
In 1931, Dorsey experienced great personal tragedy again: the death in childbirth of both his wife and newborn son devastated him. As he related in the documentary Say Amen Somebody, “People tried to tell me things that were soothing to me … none of which have ever been soothing from that day to this.” Out of that tragedy he wrote the song for which he is best known, “Precious Lord,” which has been translated into 50 languages and recorded with success by gospel and secular singers alike, including Elvis Presley, much as Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley” was a hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford and others. In 1932 Dorsey was appointed musical director of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, a post he held until his retirement in 1983. 1932 was also the year he formed the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses with blues singer Sallie Martin. Their collaboration would continue over the years as his fame spread, Martin often accompanying him on his tours around the country. She also helped him with his publishing business, which quickly became so successful that people nationwide called any piece of gospel sheet music a “Dorsey.”
Dorsey married again in 1941. His career continued to flourish; he would eventually compose over 3,000 songs. Well known within the African-American community, Dorsey nonetheless remained relatively obscure outside of it—though people were singing his songs all over the world—until he became the subject of a BBC documentary in 1976. His appearance with another great gospel singer, Willie Mae Ford Smith, in the documentary Say Amen Somebody also afforded him considerable exposure. In that film, after being helped into a room, he addresses a group of people, moving comfortably in and out of song all the while. He was ordained a minister in his sixties, formalizing the union of song and worship; the Pilgrim Baptist Church created the T. A. Dorsey Choir to honor him in 1983. Dorsey died of Alzheimer’s disease on January 23, 1993. But he lives on each Sunday as voices rise in praise, singing the gospel across the land.
(As Georgia Tom) Come on Mama Do That Dance 1931-1940, Yazoo.
Say Amen Somebody.
Harris, Michael W., The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church, Oxford University Press, 1992.
We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers, edited by Bernice Johnson Reagon, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Ann Arbor News, February 24, 1993.
Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1993.
Down Beat, April 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, February 5, 1993.
Jet, February 8, 1993.
Newsweek, February 8, 1993.
New York Times, January 25, 1993.
Time, February 8, 1993.
Village Voice, October 5, 1982.
Washington Post, January 25, 1993; January 31, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the documentary Say Amen Somebody, produced and directed by George T. Nierenberg, Pacific Arts Video Records, 1984.