Thomas A. Dorsey Biography

American gospel songwriter and pianist
Dorsey transformed the character, performance, and distribution of gospel music, bringing it out of the realm of church choirs and into the popular music arena.

Born: July 1, 1899; Villa Rica, Georgia
Died: January 23, 1993; Chicago, Illinois
Also known as: Thomas Andrew Dorsey (full name); Barrel House Tome; the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey; Georgia Tom
Member of: Famous Hokum Boys

Principal recordings
albums: Precious Lord: The Great Gospel Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey, 1973; Thomas Andrew Dorsey, 1990.
singles: “It’s Tight Like That,” 1928 (with Tampa Red Whittaker); “How About You,” 1932; “If You See My Savior,” 1932; “Peace in the Valley,” 1939 (recorded by Mahalia Jackson); “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” 1967 (recorded by Jackson; written in 1932).

The Life
Thomas Andrew Dorsey was the son of Thomas Madison Dorsey, an itinerant minister and sharecropper, and Etta Plant Spencer, a church organist and piano teacher. His early musical experience was piano lessons from his mother and the shapenote hymns and spirituals of the church. The Dorsey family moved to Atlanta in 1908, and Dorsey began working in the Eighty-One Theater, selling concessions and doing other odd jobs. There he was exposed to the music of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, and he was captivated by the blues. He began learning to play the blues from several pianists in the city, including Ed Butler, James Henningway, and Eddie Heywood. By age twelve he was known around Atlanta for playing house parties under the name Barrel House Tom. In 1916 Dorsey moved with his family to Chicago, Illinois, where he studied music formally at the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging. He began working as an agent for Paramount Records, writing songs for a Chicago publishing house, and playing in clubs under the name Georgia Tom. While Dorsey made a name for himself as a jazz and blues performer, sacred music was still important to him. After hearing W. M. Nix sing at the 1921 National Baptist Convention, Dorsey began writing sacred songs. His first sacred composition, “If I Don’t Get There,” was published in the second edition of Gospel Pearls (1921), alongside the works of Ira Sankey, Homer Rodeheaver, Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, and Charles Wesley. In 1922 he became the director of music for the New Hope Baptist Church in Chicago, where he began to incorporate his blues-playing techniques with sacred music in earnest.

Financial issues forced Dorsey to continue playing in clubs. In 1923 Dorsey became the pianist for Will Walker’s Whispering Syncopators, where he worked alongside Lionel Hampton and met W. C. Handy. Meanwhile, his compositions were attracting the attention of other performers, including Joe “King” Oliver, whose Creole Jazz Band recorded Dorsey’s “Riverside Blues.” These successes caught the attention of Rainey, who chose Dorsey to organize and lead her Wild Cats Jazz Band. In 1928 Dorsey had his biggest blues hit, with Wild Cats Jazz Band guitarist Tampa Red Whittaker. It was called “It’s Tight Like That,” and the two would record several times together as the Famous Hokum Boys.

Dorsey was at the height of his blues careerwhen personal tragedy caused him to change direction. In 1932 his wife, Nettie Harper, died in childbirth, and his son died the next day. In the wake of this loss, Dorsey renounced the blues and turned his attention to religious music full time. His sacred music had already garnered him some level of fame after Willie Mae Ford Smith performed his “If You See My Savior” at the 1930 National Baptist Convention. In 1932Dorsey organized a performance of the three church choirs with which he was involved, and that led to the development of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses (with Smith). Dorsey was elected president of the organization, over his objections, and he held the title until he stepped down in 1983. He also founded the first independent publishing house for black gospel music, the Dorsey House of Music, in Chicago. In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Dorsey turned his focus away from gospel choirs and toward individual singers, including Mahalia Jackson, Roberta Walker, Clara Ward, and Della Reese. Dorsey’s work with these singers transformed gospel music into a popular musical genre, with many of the solo gospel singers performing in clubs beside Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald as well as in churches. Hetoured with these artists, playing piano and selling the sheet music for the songs they sang, a Dorsey innovation. Before Dorsey, gospel-music composers published their songs in songbooks or song collections by a variety of composers, such as Gospel Pearls.Dorsey published his songs individually as sheet music, like the blues and Tin Pan Alley songs.

Dorsey continued composing and working with gospel choirs and singers throughout the rest of his life. In 1979 he was elected to the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame, becoming the first African American to receive that honor. Three years later he became the first African American elected to the Gospel Music Association’s Living Hall of Fame. In 1981 his home state honored Dorsey by enshrining him in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. In August, 1982, the Thomas A. Dorsey Archives were opened at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where his papers reside next to those of W. C. Handy and George Gershwin. Dorsey died in 1993 in Chicago of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He is buried in the Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.

The Music
“It’s Tight Like That.”Dorsey’s first hit was “It’s Tight Like That,” a duet with guitarist Tampa Red Whittaker. Whittaker approached Dorsey with the lyrics, and he composed the music. The song is an example of hokum, which combines urban sophistication with rural, lowbrow humor by using euphemisms and sexual innuendo to produce a bawdy song that could work in proper society. The simple musical accompaniment provides a bouncy, lighthearted rhythmic backing to the lyrics. Whittaker is the guitarist and primary vocalist, while Dorsey plays piano and sings harmony on the chorus. Since its release in 1928, “It’s Tight Like That” has sold more than seven million copies.

“If You SeeMySavior.”Dorsey’s first gospel hit was “If You SeeMySavior,” which he wrote in 1926 after the death of a friend. Its first major performance was at the National Baptist Convention, after which Dorsey sold four thousand copies of the sheet music. The song’s lyrics tie in with the tradition of spirituals, particularly in their use of the “crossing Jordan” allusion, in this case to reference dying and going to heaven. The lyrics are written from the perspective of someone sending a message to Jesus through a dying friend that the singer is on his way.

“Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Dorsey wrote his best-known song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in August, 1932, after the death of his wife, Nettie, and his newborn son. After the tragedy, which occurred while Dorsey was in St. Louis playing at a revival, he felt wronged by God. He said he did not want to write gospel songs any longer. A friend arranged forDorsey to be left alone in a room with a piano, and while he was playing around on the keys, the tune and lyrics came to him. The song is linked to the blues in the same way that the spirituals were linked to the slaves: It is a song crying out for God’s help through the hardships of life. The melody was adapted from the hymn “Maitland,” composed in 1844 by George N. Allen, although it is often attributed to Dorsey. (The same tune was used for Thomas Shepherd’s “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.”) The first recording of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was made by Emory Johnson in 1938, and since then it has been recorded by numerous performers from diverse backgrounds, including Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, Lawrence Welk, Pat Boone, Nina Simone, Chaka Kahn, Little Richard, and Faith Hill. The lyrics have appeared in forty different languages. In 2001 it was listed as one of the top 365 songs of the twentieth century by the Recording Industry Association of America, and it was inducted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame in 2007. The song was also a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Peace in the Valley.” In 1939 Dorsey wrote “Peace in the Valley” for his protégé Jackson. It is a song of hope and longing, akin to many spirituals and other gospel songs with the same theme. Unlike other songs in this tradition, which speak of heaven as a place of rest from the toils and labors of life, “Peace in the Valley” focuses on the glory of heaven. Dorsey describes “the valley” as a place free from sorrow, sadness, and trouble, where the flowers are always in bloom and the sun always shines. “Peace in the Valley” has been recorded by numerous other artists, including Hill, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Red Foley. Foley’s 1951 recording, with the Sunshine Boys, was the first gospel recording to sell one million copies, and in 2006 it was selected by the Library of Congress to be one of the entries in the National Recording Registry, which preserves recordings deemed to be important for historical, cultural, or aesthetical reasons.

Musical Legacy
Dorsey transformed the performance, dissemination, and the character of gospel music. He transformed the gospel blues of the street evangelists into the music of the church, writing and arranging songs for a choral setting and for solo singers. He published his compositions in sheet-music format rather than in songbooks, which allowed for greater distribution and caused them to be treated like popular songs rather than church songs. He was the first African American elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame as well as the GospelMusic Association’s Living Hall of Fame. His songs have been recorded by numerous artists, including Jackson, Clara Ward, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Johnny Cash. In addition, they have been praised by U.S. Presidents, civil rights leaders, and music historians.