Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born on 1 July, 1899 in Villa Rica, Georgia, USA and died on 23 January, 1993 in Chicago, Illinois. Thomas is known as “the father of gospel music”. Earlier in his life he was a leading blues pianist known as Georgia Tom.
As formulated by Thomas Dorsey, gospel music combines Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and the blues. Thomas’ conception also deviates from what had been, to that time, standard hymnal practice by referring explicitly to the self, and the self’s relation to faith and God, rather than the individual subsumed into the group via belief.
Thomas Dorsey was the music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago from 1932 until the late 1970s. Thomas’ best known composition, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, was performed by Mahalia Jackson and was a favorite of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, and “Peace in the Valley”, which was a hit for Red Foley in 1951 and has been performed by dozens of other artists, including Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
In 2002, the Library of Congress honored his album Precious Lord: New Recordings of the Great Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey (1973), by adding it to the United States National Recording Registry.
Thomas Dorsey’s father was a minister and his mother a piano teacher. Thomas Dorsey learned to play blues piano as a young man. After studying music formally in Chicago, he became an agent for Paramount Records. Thomas Dorsey put together a band for Ma Rainey called the “Wild Cats Jazz Band” in 1924.
Thomas Dorsey started out playing at rent parties with the names Barrelhouse Tom and Texas Tommy, but he was most famous as Georgia Tom. As Georgia Tom, he teamed up with Tampa Red (Hudson Whittaker) with whom he recorded the raunchy 1928 hit record “Tight Like That”, a sensation, selling seven million copies. In all, he is credited with more than 400 blues and jazz songs.
Personal tragedy led Thomas Dorsey to leave secular music behind and began writing and recording what he called “gospel” music. Thomas Dorsey was the first to use that term. Thomas Dorsey’s first wife, Nettie, who had been Rainey’s wardrobe mistress, died in childbirth in 1932 along with his first son. In his grief, he wrote his most famous song, one of the most famous of all gospel songs, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.
Unhappy with the treatment received at the hands of established publishers, Thomas Dorsey opened the first black gospel music publishing company, Thomas Dorsey House of Music. Thomas Dorsey also founded his own gospel choir and was a founder and first president of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
Thomas Dorsey’s influence was not limited to African American music, as white musicians also followed his lead. “Precious Lord” has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Clara Ward, Roy Rogers, and Tennessee Ernie Ford, among hundreds of others. It was a favorite gospel song of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was sung at the rally the night before his assassination, and at his funeral by Mahalia Jackson, per his request. It was also a favorite of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who requested it to be sung at his funeral. Thomas Dorsey was also a great influence on other Chicago based gospel artists such as “Queen of Gospel” Albertina Walker and The Caravans.
Thomas Dorsey wrote “Peace in the Valley” for Mahalia Jackson in 1937, which also became a gospel standard. Thomas Dorsey was the first African American elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and also the first in the Gospel Music Association’s Living Hall of Fame. Thomas Dorsey was inducted into the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in 2007. Thomas Dorsey papers are preserved at Fisk University, along with those of W.C. Handy, George Gershwin, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
The works of Thomas A. Dorsey have proliferated beyond performance, into the hymnals of virtually all American churches and of English-speaking churches worldwide.
Thomas Dorsey was a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated.
In 2007, he was inducted as a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana.
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