Some people are fortunate enough to make their mark in one particular field of
endeavor, while others contribute and excel in multiple fields, becoming legends
in the process. Such is the legacy of Thomas A. Dorsey, who (after a productive
career in the blues) went on to become a pioneer of gospel music. Add to this
his vast body of work as a composer, arranger, and music publisher, and one
finds enough creativity for several lifetimes!|
Thomas Andrew Dorsey came into this world July 1,1899 at Villa Rica, in
Carroll County, Georgia. Born into a household where religion was at the
foremost, Thomas and his three siblings were raised in a spiritually rich
atmosphere, thanks to their father, Thomas Madison Dorsey, and mother, Etta
Plant Spencer Dorsey. The senior Thomas had been involved in church work
throughout Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida as an itinerant preacher; mother Etta
was an organist and choir singer. The couple met during an evangelizing mission.
Money was hard to come by, and the Reverend Dorsey would supplement the family
income with farm work while moving from town to town seeking a permanent
pastorate. It was financial woes that caused the Dorseys to leave Villa Rica for
Atlanta about 1904. As young Thomas grew a bit older he was expected to assist
with the family income, and around 1910 he took a job at the 81 Theater selling
concessions during intermission. The prestigious venue was located on Decatur
Street, which was part of Atlanta's black entertainment district, and Thomas was
privy to the many vaudeville acts and touring musicians, such as Ma Rainey and
Bessie Smith, who left a great impression on him. Dorsey studiously listened to
the piano players at the theater, and learned to play the instrument himself. He
also learned to read music during this period, a key attribute that would
further his contribution to American roots music. He began playing for small
audiences at house parties and bordellos in the city using the name Barrelhouse
In 1916 Thomas Dorsey migrated north to Chicago, working for a time at a
factory in nearby Gary, Indiana, while playing local clubs in a five-piece band
he founded. In 1919 he enrolled at the Chicago School of Composition and
Arranging, where he sharpened his skills over the next three years. His efforts
paid off when he was hired by Paramount Records to arrange songs and also act as
talent scout for the label. His song "Riverside Blues" was recorded by jazz
giant (and Gennett recording artist) King Oliver; other compositions, "I Want A
Daddy To Call My Own" and "Muddy Water Blues," were put on wax by the singer
Monette Moore. He found gigs with Will Walker's Whispering Syncopators during
1922-23, but it was the following year in which he caught his big break. Ma
Rainey came onto the Paramount roster, and Thomas was assigned to become her
arranger and coach. A successful show at Chicago's Grand Theater led to Dorsey’s
touring with the great blues singer and leading the five-piece Wild Cats Jazz
Band on the Theater Owner's Booking Association circuit at dates around the
Midwest and South. Thomas married Nettie Harper in 1925, and she accompanied her
husband on the road as Ma Rainey's wardrobe mistress. By this time Dorsey had
begun recording with Rainey, playing on such numbers as "Black Eye Blues" and
"Sleep Talking Blues." He also toured with Big Bill Broonzy, Bertha "Chippie"
Hill, and Papa Charlie Jackson. All of this hyperactivity led to Tom suffering a
nervous breakdown, from which he recovered only through a religious conversion.
As with several bluesmen, he was internally torn between the sacred and the
secular—his devotion to the Lord and the "devil's music" he loved so much. At
this point, the blues won out.
In 1928, now known professionally as Georgia Tom, Dorsey teamed
with talented bottleneck guitarist Tampa Red on the million-selling
hokum blues number "It's Tight Like That." The song proved
so popular the duo actually made multiple recordings, first as Tampa
Red and Georgia Tom and later as Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band (with
Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon on vocals). A third version
saw the pair accompany the singers Papa Too Sweet and Harry Jones.
Georgia Tom created many sides for Gennett Records between 1928
and 1930, many issued on related labels Supertone and Champion.
The Champion label was established by Fred Gennett as a budget specialty
label, primarily for distribution through chain stores. Through
retailers like Sears, nearly all of America had the opportunity
to purchase great music at an affordable price. Among titles released
by Georgia Tom under assorted names (he was even re-issued on Champion
as Smokehouse Charlie!), were the songs "All Alone Blues"
Gennett 7041/Champion 15903, "Dark Hour Blues" Champion
15950, "Eagle Ridin' Papa" Champion 15834/Supertone 9508,
"Maybe It's The Blues" Champion 15994 and 50054/Gennett
7190, "Pat That Bread" Supertone S2216, "Pig Meat
Blues" Champion 15815, "Second-Hand Woman Blues"
Gennett 7130/Supertone 9647, "Somebody's Been Usin' That Thing,
No.2" Gennett 6933/Champion 15794, and "Terrible Operation
Blues" Champion 16171. Although Gennett is best known for its
monumental jazz releases, these sides point to the firm’s importance
in the early blues market.
Georgia Tom also recorded numerous songs with fellow Gennett artists Scrapper
Blackwell and Big Bill Broonzy. He had not completely forsaken his spiritual
side, though. Throughout the 1920s, Dorsey wrote songs such as "If I Don't Get
There" and "If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me." The latter
composition he performed in 1930 at the National Baptist Convention to almost
delirious response. The following year he joined with the singing evangelist
Theodore Frye at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in what is generally recognized as
the first gospel chorus. He formed a publishing company, the Thomas A. Dorsey
Gospel Songs Music Publishing Company to profit from the sale of sheet music.
Dorsey also partnered with singer Sallie Martin in founding the National
Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
The next landmark in the life of Thomas Dorsey came in 1932 when he was
appointed director of the choir at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago's
Bronzeville District, an association he would continue until 1972. Perhaps the
greatest turning point in his life, however, came when tragedy befell the Dorsey
family. In August 1932 Thomas' wife Nettie died during childbirth, and his
firstborn son, Thomas Andrew, Jr., perished the very next day. Needless to say
the events hit Dorsey hard, and he turned once again to his faith for
consolation. He responded by writing one of the most famous songs of his career,
"Take My Hand, Precious Lord," a tune later recorded by Aretha Franklin that has
been sung in countless churches and at weddings and funerals in the decades
since. These tragic events also marked the close of Georgia Tom Dorsey's work in
the blues; from that point on he was committed solely to gospel music.
Through the efforts of Thomas Dorsey and Sallie Martin, gospel choruses began
flourishing throughout South Side churches in Chicago. He continued to write and
publish prolifically during the 1930s, songs such as "Did It Happen To You Like
It Happened To Me?," "Do You Know Anything About Jesus?," and "Forgive My Sins,
Forget, And Make Me Whole." Thomas also published his first books, Inspirational
Thoughts in 1934 and Songs with a Message: My Ups and Downs in 1938. In 1935
Ruth A. Smith's The Life and Works of Thomas Andrew Dorsey: The Celebrated
Pianist and Songwriter, Poetical and Pictorial was published. Smith’s book was
the first Dorsey biography. From 1932 he made appearances with his own
University Gospel Singers, and the group debuted on Chicago's WLFL radio in
1937. He toured the United States, Mexico, Europe, and North Africa with the
Gospel Choral Union, proselytizing during "An Evening With Dorsey" at churches
and concerts from 1932-44. Another key moment in Dorsey’s lifetime occurred when
he "discovered" and nurtured the career of gospel's first international star,
the fabulous Mahalia Jackson, whom he had met in 1929. The pair sang together at
Pilgrim Baptist Church, and Thomas went on the road with her beginning in the
late 1930s and through the War years. Later Jackson would sing "Take My Hand,
Precious Lord" at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commencing in 1940,
Dorsey served as Dean of Evangelistic Musical Research and Ministry of Church
Music for the Gospel Choral Union of Chicago.
Thomas Dorsey had over 400 gospel songs published and composed hundreds more.
His "Peace in the Valley" is a favorite song of country performers and was a hit
for Elvis Presley in 1957. The scope of his life's work is almost dizzying. In
the 1960s and 70s he served as assistant pastor at Pilgrim Baptist, and toured
the lecture circuit. A 1973 tribute album, "Precious Lord," featured singers
such as Sallie Martin and the Dixie Hummingbirds alongside Tom Dorsey on piano.
He appeared in the 1983 gospel documentary, "Say Amen, Somebody," broken hips
and all, waxing eloquently about his dual lives in the blues and the gospel.
Thomas Andrew Dorsey led a full life, rich beyond dreams in so many ways. He
died on January 23, 1993. This peaceful man, who gave the gift of his music and
himself, rests inside the mausoleum at Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago's south
side. Credited with devising the term "gospel music," Tom Dorsey once served as
a leading light in the field of pre-War blues. Much of that legacy can be heard
because of Gennett Records, a leading light in the field of American roots
Author: Don Ely, Rochester, Michigan