Widely regarded as the father of gospel music, Thomas A. Dorsey’s composing talent became a merging point in the early ‘20s, for many musical styles. In actual fact, his first musical impact was as a blues stylist as both writer and performer.
Years later he would compose such compelling gospel classics as “Take My Hand Precious Lord,” “Peace in the Valley,” “The Old Ship of Zion,” “On the Battlefield,” “Walk All Over God’s Heaven” and “Search Me Lord,” which taken in
total were responsible for untold millions of dollars in recording sales.
Dorsey was born July 1, 1899 in Villa Rica, GA., to the Reverend and Mrs. T. M. Dorsey, one of 10 children. When he was eight years old, the family moved to Atlanta where he soon was working part time selling ginger ale at a local theater, halfway between a pool hall and a barber shop. At the theater, he learned to play the piano and by age 12, Dorsey was a professional musician, moving on to the barrelhouses and brothels of Atlanta’s notorious Decatur Street where he played the blues and came to be known as ‘Barrelhouse Tommy.’
His arrival in Chicago at 17 led to an immersion in the nourishing Windy City blues scene, where he attended music classes and worked day jobs and as a blues singer and player in prohibition era speakeasies at night. Still in Chicago, he attended a Baptist Convention at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1922 and was so moved by the musical preacher he heard that night that he had a conversion experience, coining the term, ‘Gospel Music,’ and writing his very first gospel song all within a week. Still traveling the blues circuit, he began having his gospel songs printed in sheet music form and selling them for 10c apiece to musicians and pastors.
During much of the decade of the ‘20s, Dorsey continued to straddle the fence between blues and jazz on the one hand and gospel music on the other. With the advent of blues records in the ‘20s, Dorsey became a much in-demand arranger and accompanist. Working in a band called The Whispering Syncopators, with Lionel Hampton, he arranged for Ma Rainey and her Wildcats on tour where he was a featured performer and for Louis Armstrong. He also found time to marry Nettie Harper, a church girl.
Having already written several major gospel hit songs, he teamed up with guitarist Hudson Whittaker in 1928 and as “Georgia Tom” and “Tampa Red,” the pair co-wrote and recorded “It’s Tight Like That,” which ultimately sold seven million recordings, a record for the blues era, and inspiring a whole new style which came to be known as “Hokum Blues.” And from 1928 to 1932, working as ‘Georgia Tom,’ he contributed to over 300 blues records, working with such immortals as Big Bill Broonzy, Scrapper Blackwell, Kansas City Kitty, Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill, Frankie ‘Half Pint’ Jackson and Jane Lucas, among
In the winter of 1932, while on the road performing, he received word of the death of his wife, Nettie, in childbirth, with the newborn dying the next day. The experience so transformed Dorsey creatively and spiritually, that legend has it that he composed his most famous gospel song, “Take My Hand Precious Lord,” during a mourning service that very week.
In the next years, Dorsey spent much of his time on tour and became a successful Black music publisher. Later, in 1940, he married Kathryn Mosely, a union that was blessed with two children. A high point for Dorsey’s music came when the legendary Red Foley and the Foggy Mountain Boys, stars of the Grand Ole’ Opry, recorded “Peace in the Valley,” which topped The Lucky Strike Hit Parade in 1948. His songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Jimmy Durante, Ray Price, Jim Reeves, Boots Randolph, Lawrence Welk, Wayne Newton, Josh White and B.B. King, among many others. During the 1980s, he was honored so often with honorary doctorates that he came to be known as Dr. Thomas A. Dorsey. He died in 1993 at the ripe old age of 94, but the memory of his wonderful songs, both gospel and blues, will live on and on.