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Thomas A. Dorsey

Summary

Thomas Andrew Dorsey
July 1, 1899 – January 23, 1993
Noteable: Musician
Nationality: American

Media

YouTube Video

Podcast Episode

Show Notes

Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born on July 1, 1899, in Villa Rica, Georgia. His father, Thomas Madison Dorsey, was a Baptist minister and sharecropper. His mother, Etta Plant Spencer, played the church organ and was a piano teacher. From a very young age, Dorsey was immersed in church, learning to play the organ from his mother while being exposed to the emotions of spirituals.

In 1908, the Dorseys left Villa Rica for Atlanta. While the larger city is only about 30 miles east of Villa Rica, culturally it was a world away. Dorsey was set back a grade and felt left out and disconnected from the other kids. The family experienced financial hardships which forced his mother to work as a domestic worker and his father as a laborer. As work took his parents away from the church, Dorsey also disconnected from church.

Dorsey began to spend some of his free time in Downtown Atlanta, then an epicenter of Atlanta’s Black community. On the streets, he heard an array of secular music. He frequented theaters to watch vaudeville performances and became entranced by the blues after seeing Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

A bit of a hustler, Dorsey earned money working at the concession stand in the Eighty-One, a vaudeville theater. He learned to read music and play the piano from various pianists who passed through the venue. By age 12, Dorsey was getting paid to play the piano at bars and brothels along Decatur Street.

At age 17, Dorsey left his parents’ home and Atlanta for Chicago where he planned to become a musician. He enrolled at the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging to obtain some formal music education. By the 1920s, Dorsey was officially a professional musician. Working under the name “Georgia Tom”, Dorsey played in bands and worked as a session musician. He composed and arranged music for the Chicago Music Publishing Company and served as a music coach for record labels. Dorsey also showed some entrepreneurial drive by publishing his compositions, some of which popular artists recorded.

Since his earlier move to Atlanta, Dorsey focused on the blues and secular music. But in 1921, Dorsey heard W.M. Nix sing at the National Baptist Convention and coined the term “gospel music”. The experience motivated Dorsey to return to his roots and write spiritual music. The following year Dorsey published his first religious composition and brought gospel blues to the New Hope Baptist Church where he was the music director.

Yet as Dorsey began to work with religious music, he did not abandon secular music. These were the early days of the recording industry and blues and jazz records were gaining popularity. Dorsey became a sought-after arranger and session player contributing to over 300 blues records between 1928 and 1932.

He began a professional partnership with Ma Rainey in 1924, appearing on her recordings and touring as part of her band. Dorsey also collaborated with Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong. He frequently collaborated with the guitarist Hudson “Tampa Red” Whittaker. The duo’s 1928 hit record “It’s Tight Like That”, sold seven million copies. Dorsey continued to alternate between secular and gospel music. At times church leaders rejected him and his blues-tinged church music for being too worldly.

During this period, Dorsey married Nettie Harper. Unfortunately, while on tour in 1932, Dorsey was informed that his wife had died in childbirth and the baby died the following day. Dorsey poured his overwhelming grief into the lyrics of what would become the iconic “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”. He remarried in 1940 to Kathryn Mosely and the couple had a son and daughter.

The year after his first wife’s death, Dorsey co-founded and served as the first president of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. The latter half of the 1930s saw Dorsey working with female singers such as Della Reese and Clara Ward. But his most significant working relationship was arguably with Mahalia Jackson. Their collaborations from the 1930s to the early 1940s helped catapult their careers. Of particular note was “Peace in the Valley” which Dorsey wrote for Jackson and her performances made popular.

To be clear, Dorsey did not invent “gospel music” but he was one of the key pioneers in developing and popularizing the genre. Dorsey formed the Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel Songs Music Publishing Company in 1930 through which he published his religious compositions. Working as the music or choir director at various Chicago churches, most notably at the Pilgrim Baptist Church for 40 years, he helped to popularize and spread gospel music.

Thomas A. Dorsey died in Chicago on January 23, 1993, from Alzheimer’s complications. During his life, Dorsey received multiple honorary doctorates, awards, and other accolades. His songs have been translated into various languages and recorded by other iconic musicians.

Sources

  1. Alexander, Otis. 2007. “Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993).” Blackpast.Org. January 21, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/dorsey-thomas-1899-1993/.
  2. Hill, Ian. 2018. “‘Georgia Tom’ Dorsey.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. University of Georgia Press. July 16, 2018. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/georgia-tom-dorsey-1899-1993/.
  3. N.d. Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Accessed June 27, 2024. https://nashvillesongwritersfoundation.com/Site/inductee?entry_id=4259.
  4. “Thomas A. Dorsey.” 2022. TeachRock. May 17, 2022. https://teachrock.org/traceitback/thomas-a-dorsey/.
  5. “Thomas A. Dorsey.” n.d. Songwriters Hall of Fame. Accessed June 27, 2024. https://www.songhall.org/awards/winner/Thomas_A_Dorsey.
  6. “Thomas Dorsey.” n.d. PBS This Far by Faith. Public Broadcasting Service. Accessed June 27, 2024. https://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/thomas_dorsey.html.

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