Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993)

Thomas A. Dorsey, 1945
Courtesy of Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University, Fair use image

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Thomas Dorsey, known widely as the “Father of Gospel Music,” was a pianist, composer, arranger, singer, and lyricist. He was born Thomas Andrew Dorsey on July 1, 1899, in Villa Rica, Georgia, to Thomas Madison Dorsey, a revivalist preacher, a graduate of Atlanta Bible College (later Morehouse College), and Etta Plant Spencer Dorsey, who was the church organist. Thomas had four siblings. The family moved to Atlanta in 1907, when he was eight years old, and by 11, he left school and worked at a vaudeville theater concession booth, selling refreshments. At 12, he was a paid pianist performing in Atlanta barrelhouses and brothels.

In 1916, at 17, Dorsey moved to Chicago, Illinois where he attended the Chicago Musical College which eventually merged with Roosevelt University’s School of Music, married Nettie Harper from Devereaux, Georgia, in 1920, and had a rigorous schedule of playing church music while performing the blues in nightclubs. Dorsey continued this pattern of alternating between gospel and blues music for the rest of his career.

In 1922 Dorsey wrote his first gospel composition, “If I Don’t Get There” but he also collaborated with guitarist Hudson “Tampa Red” Whittaker to record “It’s Tight Like That” which eventually sold seven million copies. Dorsey also sold more than 4,000 sheet music copies of “If You See My Savior.” He was the accompanist for blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, touring with her between 1924 and 1928. In 1930 he founded the Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel Songs Music Publishing Company.

In 1932, Dorsey was appointed the Minister of Music and choir director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. Given his reputation, he filled the 3,000-seat church for its first Gospel Singer Convention later that year. Dorsey held the music leadership position at Pilgrim Baptist for 40 years and served as its assistant pastor. Being overwhelmed by the death of his wife and child during childbirth, he was inspired in August 1932 to compose the gospel hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” which would eventually be translated into more than 50 languages. In 1933, Dorsey co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in Chicago and served as its first president. In 1937, he wrote “Peace in the Valley” for Mahalia Jackson who made it famous.

Dorsey, however, continued to produce secular music. He teamed up again with Tampa Red again and recorded 50 popular songs with risqué themes including “Caught Us Doin’ It,” performed by the Hokum Boys. In 1940, Dorsey married Kathryn Mosely from Chicago. They parented a son and a daughter, Thomas Mickey Dorsey and Doris Dorsey.

A recipient of a plethora of awards and accolades, Dorsey received the American Music Conference National Music Award in 1976, an honorary degree of humane letters from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1980, was elected to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1981, and was the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences National Trustees Award in 1992.

Thomas Dorsey, who coined the phrase “gospel” and composed over 1,000 gospel works and 2,000 blues songs, died in Chicago, Illinois, on January 23, 1993. He was 94 and had struggled with Alzheimer’s disease. Dorsey was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2018.