Dorsey, Thomas 1899–1993
Thomas Dorsey 1899–1993
Composer, arranger, pianist
Deemed the “father of gospel music,” Thomas Dorsey emerged, during the early 1930s, as the creator of an African American religious music style known as the gospel blues—an idiom responsible for ushering in the “Golden Age of Gospel Music. “In his long career Dorsey published nearly 400 compositions, including a large body of religious and secular music. Like many other African musicians of the 1920s, he moved freely between the performance of blues and gospel. After working as a blues pianist he worked as a composer of vaudeville blues and eventually became a popular blues recording artist. Despite criticism regarding his involvement in the 1920s hokum fad, Dorsey proved an able composer and pianist who exhibited a stylistic quality that walked the line between city and country blues traditions. With his final redemption and abandonment of blues in 1932, he took the stylistic foundations and inflections of blues music, infused them into gospel blues, and over the following decades found fame as an African American religious composer and chorus director at Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church.
Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born the son of Reverend Thomas M. Dorsey and Etta Plant Spencer on July 1, 1899, in Villa Rica, Georgia, a small town 30 miles west of Atlanta. Without funds to build a home on their farmland in Villa Rica, Reverend Dorsey and his wife-who originally purchased the land-moved their family to Atlanta. Not long afterward, the Dorseys took up residence in Forsyth, Georgia, where for two years, despite Reverend Dorsey’s position as a church pastor, the family lived in a state of bare subsistence. Back in Villa Rica in 1903, Reverend Thomas resorted to farming as the main source of family income and served in the area as a guest preacher. Between working in the fields and traveling with his father to various churches, Thomas spent three months of the year attending his father’s auxiliary elementary school.
Dorsey’s mother sang in the church choir and lead group vocals during hymns and spirituals. As Michael W. Harris noted in, The Rise of the Gospel Blues, “Etta seems to have created an ambience in their home, the musical aspect of which was totally her doing.” Apart from listening to his mother play the organ, Dorsey heard the blues guitar playing of Etta’s brother, Phil Plant. Dors-ey’s early exposure to religious music and blues would later surface in a dichotomous career, which in its early years straddled the fence between the secular world of nightclubs and brothels and the sounds of the church.
In 1908 the Dorsey family returned to Atlanta. Demoted several grades in school, Dorsey lost interest in his studies and directed his attention to learning the styles of local pianists who performed in the thriving theater scene along Atlanta’s Decatur Street. By age 12 he left school to become a professional pianist. At Decatur
At a Glance…
Born Thomas Andrew Dorsey, July 1, 1899, inVillaRica, Georgia; died in Chicago on January 23,1993; son of Thomas Madison Dorsey (preacher and farmer) and Etta Plant Spencer; married Nettie Harper, 1925 (deceased, 1932); children: Thomas Andrew Dorsey, Jr. (deceased, 1932). Education: studied music at Chicago School of Composition and Arranging.
Performed as blues-style pian ist in Atlanta, early 1910s; worked fora short time in steel mills of Gary, IN, c.1916; performed in local house party district, Chicago, 1919; arranged music for syncopated society bands and composed vaudeville blues numbers; published first gospel song, 1921 ;worked as a studio pianist and arranger for the Chicago Music Publishing Company, mid-1920s;assembled Gertrude, “Ma” Rainey’s back group “Wild Cats of Jazz” and toured as the band’s pianist, 1924; published gospel numbers and began recording blues under the name “Georgia Tom” with Hudson “TampaRed” Whittaker, 1928; performed at the National Baptist Convention, 1930; performed with singer/evangelist Theodore Fryeat Ebenezer Church, Chicago, c.1930-32;became choral director of Pilgrim BaptistChurch, Chicago, 1932-c.1972; teamed up with singer SallieMartin and toured gospel music circuit, 1932;toured with Mahal ia Jackson, 1939-1944; served as assistant pastor at Pilgrim Baptist and toured as lecturer, c 1940-1960s; made occasional appearances at gospel conventions, late 1970s; appeared in documentary Say Amen, Somebody, 1983.
Awards: Honorary Doctor of Gospel Music degree from the Simmons Institute of South Carolina, 1946; American Music Conference National Music Award, 1976.
Street’s Eighty-One Theater-home to such visiting performers as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith-he sold soft drinks and popcorn during intermission and studied the talents of the establishment’s main pianist, Ed Butler. He also learned from pianists James Hennen-way (or Hemingway) and Lark Lee. Proficient at the keyboard at an early age, Dorsey began playing house parties throughout Atlanta’s black districts, including bordellos where he earned the nickname “Barrelhouse Tom.” Working in theaters and playing a variety of styles, Dorsey later explained in The Rise of the Gospel Blues that at this “time I didn’t understand blues or nothing .... All of the music sounded just about alike to me.... I had become very popular with the younger set, or now you would say teenagers, and I lucked up on a few good-looking clothes.”
Despite his local reputation as a house party pianist, Dorsey was determined to learn to read music-a skill he believed would allow him to join more socially-respected musicians. He took private lessons from Mrs. Graves, a woman affiliated with Atlanta Baptist College—now Morehouse College. Still averse to formal instruction, however, he soon returned to the house party scene and continued to teach himself the rudiments of written music through instruction books.
After settling in Chicago in 1919, Dorsey played the local house party circuit and by 1922 joined “The Whispering Syncopators” led by Will Walker. Around this time, while studying at the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging, Dorsey engaged in the lucrative trade of scoring and arranging music for syncopated society bands. Influenced by the commercial blues compositions of W. C. Handy, Dorsey found success in the song writing field in 1923 with his number “I Want a Daddy I Call My Own.” The number was recorded by singer Monette Moore, who subsequently recorded Dorsey’s “Muddy Water Blues.” In the same year, New Orleans trumpeter King Oliver recorded Dorsey’s “Riverside Blues.” As Michael Harris noted, in The Rise of Gospel Blues, “With one piece published by a large popular music company, and three recorded by two of the most famous artists of the time, Dorsey had become at last one of the major blues composers in Chicago. In little more than a year, Dorsey had risen from relative obscurity to a position of prominence.”
In the mid-1920s, as recorded blues replaced the popularity of the published vaudeville blues industry, Dorsey turned his attention to arranging music. Hired by the Chicago Music Publishing Company, owned by Mayo Williams, Dorsey worked as composer, arranger, and studio pianist. In 1924, he was recruited as the accompanying pianist with “Ma” Rainey. The job also included the duty of assembling and leading the “Wild Cats Jazz Band,” Rainey’s back-up musicians. Dorsey later recounted Rainey’s stage presence, as quoted in Looking Up At Down: “[S]he would open the door and step out into the spotlight with her glittering gown that weighed twenty pounds and wearing a necklace of five, ten and twenty gold pieces.” For the next two years, Dorsey traveled with the band on the Theater Owner’s Booking Association circuit, until severe psychological depression temporarily forced him to leave music.
After attending church he experienced a spiritual healing that renewed his conviction in his worldly pursuits. Soon after, the sudden death of a neighbor inspired him to write one his most famous religious compositions, “If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me.” Just as Dorsey looked to W. C. Handy as a model for his early vaudeville blues, he first modeled his religious compositions after the music of Charles Albert Tindley. As C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya wrote, in The Black Church in the African American Experience, “[Dors-ey’s) blues-like gospel songs reflect the same eschatol-ogy [concern with death] as the Tindley hymns in their quest for the glorious hereafter.”
In need of a more reliable source of steady income, Dorsey ventured back into the composition and performance of blues. Under the name “Georgia Tom,” he made recordings for the Vocalion Record Company along with guitarist and vocalist Hudson “Tampa Red” Whittaker, a talented and influential Georgia-born slide guitarist. The combination of Dorsey and Whittaker contributed to a new trend of guitar-piano blues that reflected an urban style. In November, Georgia Tom and Tampa Red recorded their 1928 double-entendre number, “Tight Like That.” The song sold nearly one-million copies, inspired two other recorded versions by Dorsey and Whittaker, and generated numerous derivatives by other artists.
During his blues career Dorsey made about 40 recordings as a vocalist. He recorded numerous albums with other musicians such as Scrapper Blackwell and Big Bill Broonzy. In 1929 Dorsey and Whittaker recorded for the Paramount label as the Hokum Boys, initiating a new blues genre that drew upon minstrelsy antecedents, ragtime, and vaudeville. Dorsey also recognized his debt to New Orleans-born banjoist and guitarist “Papa” Charlie Jackson. Though criticized by several blues writers and historians, the hokum tradition exemplified by Dorsey and Whittaker did not produce music totally devoid of blues content or inventive wit. The duo also produced tracks of serious, down-home style blues exhibiting a forceful sound. Stephen Calt wrote, in the liner notes to Georgia Tom Dorsey, that Dorsey “probably ranked as the most self-conscious, serious and accomplished blues lyricist of his time. Far from debasing the medium, he raised the blues to new levels of inventiveness, and brought a degree of wit and sophistication that had never previously been known to blues lyrics.”
While still performing as a blues artist, Dorsey experienced a career breakthrough in the gospel realm in 1930 when he performed at the National Baptist Convention. Not long afterward, he performed with a Mississippi-born singing evangelist, Theodore Frye, at Chicago’s Ebenezer Church. At Ebenezer, Dorsey often stood while playing the keyboard, accompanying Frye as he sang and “strutted” in front of the congregation. “I always had rhythm in my bones,” recalled Dorsey in Reflections on Afro-American Music. “I like the solid beat. I like the long, moaning, groaning tone. I like the rock. You know how they rock and shout in church…. This rhythm I brought into the gospel songs.”
In 1932 Dorsey accepted an invitation to become choir director of Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church--a post he held for nearly 40 years. That same year, he began his musical association with singer Sallie Martin. “Dorsey’s genius and Sallie’s fervor proved an irresistible combination,” observed Tony Heilbut, in The Gospel Sound. “Within a year’s time, gospel choruses especially trained to sing Dorsey’s tunes began sprouting all over Chicago’s South Side.” In the documentary, Say Amen, Somebody, Sallie Martin expressed her contribution to Dorsey’s success as a gospel composer: “Wherever I’d go I carried the [sheet] music and sing the songs [and] sell them after the service was over. And that’s the way Mr. Dorsey built his business.”
Dorsey’s new-found devotion to the church, during the years of economic depression, inspired numerous gospel blues compositions. As Dorsey explained in The Gospel Sound, his songs “lifted people out of the muck and mire of poverty and loneliness, of being broke, and gave them some kind of hope anyway. “That same year, Dorsey and Sallie Martin founded the National Convention of Gospel Choir and Choruses. After performing at a concert in August of 1932, Dorsey learned that his wife, Nettie, had died while giving birth to their first child, Thomas Andrew, Jr. The next morning his new-born son also died. Seeking further solace in God, he vented his despair by composing his most famous gospel song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
April of 1932 marked Dorsey’s last known recorded performance of blues music. He then pursued a full-time career evangelizing through gospel music. By 1937 Dorsey’s University Gospel Singers made their debut on Chicago’s WLFL radio. At this time, Dorsey toured America, billing his performances as “An Evening with Dorsey.” In 1940, under the auspices of the Gospel Choral Union of Chicago, he served as Dean of Evangelistic Musical Research and Ministry of Church Music. Between 1939 and 1944 he toured with Mahalia Jackson, who succeeded Sallie Martin as his main chorister.
In the 1960s Dorsey served as assistant pastor at Pilgrim Baptist and toured as a lecturer for various social and educational functions. In the early 1970s Tony Heilbut, who interviewed Dorsey for his study The Gospel Sound, noted that “At age seventy-five, Dorsey no longer writes or travels, but he continues to direct the convention. “In dedication to his long career as a gospel composer, Dorsey’s music was featured on the 1973 album Precious Lord, an effort that featured such guest singers as Sallie Martin-accompanied by Dorsey on piano-Marion Williams, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and R. H. Harris. In 1982 Dorsey appeared in the gospel music documentary Say Amen, Somebody. The film revealed his unabashed views concerning his earlier blues career. Shown in the film recovering from two broken hips and forced to use a walker, Dorsey displayed a tireless passion for his music and devotion to religion by singing along with a 1930 recording of “How Can You Have the Blues?” “God is still in business,” he stated in the documentary, “and if you’re God’s child or anything to God he’ll take care of you.” After 60 years in the service of spreading the “good news of the gospel” through music, Dorsey died from Alzheimer’s disease in Chicago on January 23, 1993.
Over the last six decades, Dorsey’s compositions have found their way into the repertoires of the greatest gospel singers from Mahalia Jackson to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. White artists such as Elvis Presley and Red Foley both scored gold records with Dorsey’s “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley.”In Reflections on Afro-American Music, Dorsey conveyed the universal purpose of his music: “I don’t write songs for Black men, or White men, or Red men, or Yellow men, or Brown men. I write songs for people, and I want all men to sing these gospel songs.”
Complete Works Vol. 11928-1930, Document.
Georgia Tom Dorsey: Come on Mama Do That Dance, Yazoo, 1992.
Kansas City Kitty/Georgia Tom, Document.
Precious Lord: Recordings of the Great Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey, Columbia, 1973.
Tampa Red: The Guitar Wizard, Columbia, 1994.
Tampa Red, It’s Tight Like That 1928-1942, Story of the Blues.
Do That Guitar Rag: 1928-1935, Yazoo.
Victoria Spivey, Recorded Legacy of the Blues, Spivey Records.
Dorsey, Thomas, Inspirational Thoughts, self-published, 1934.
Dorsey, Thomas, Songs With a Message: My Ups and Downs, self-published, 1938.
Dorsey, Thomas, Dorsey’s Book of Poems, 1941.
Barlow, William, Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, Temple University Press, 1989, p. 157.
Harris, Michael W., The Rise of the Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Dorsey in the Urban Church, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Heilbut, Anthony, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, revised and updated, Limelight editions, 1992, p. 8.
Lincoln, Eric C and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, DukeUniversity Press, 1990, p. 361.
Rene’ de Lerma, Dominique, Reflections on Afro-American Music, Kent State Press, 1973, pp. 189-195.
Additional information for this profile obtained from: Stephen Calt’s liner notes to Georgia Dorsey: Come on Do That Dance, Yazoo, 1992; and the documentaryfilm, Say Amen Somebody.
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