Thomas A Dorsey 1899-1993

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Tuesday 1st June 1993

Gospel music giant Thomas A Dorsey dies aged 93.

The acknowledged populariser of modern black gospel music, Thomas A Dorsey, has died aged 93. He finally succumbed to Alzheimer's disease on 23rd January 1993 in Chicago. Thomas was born in Villa Rica, Georgia on 1st July 1899 to the Reverend Thomas and Etta Dorsey. He grew up in Atlanta where he "ran wild" and by the age of 12 was playing piano at parties, dances and drinking dens. In 1916 he moved to Chicago and by the early 20s was composing and working in will Walker's Whispering Syncopators. In 1928 he made his recording debut as Georgia Tom. Dorsey the blues-recording artist was a polished singer and a witty lyricist though his lyrics often adopted the "blue blues" approach of the era. With his guitar playing compatriot Tampa Red, Dorsey wrote and recorded a piece of novelty, double entendre "It's Tight Like That" which started the hokum craze and sold enormously. Dorsey also recorded with Big Bill Broonzy in the Famous Hokum Boys, with Kansas City Kitty and accompanied the legendary matriarch of classic blues, Ma Rainey. As early as 1926 Dorsey had written his first gospel hit "If You See My Saviour" but it was not until the Depression that the singer found some degree of spiritual consistency and turned exclusively to gospel music. In 1930 he set up his own company to publish gospel songs, a term which he claimed to have invented, and was away demonstrating the new music when his wife Nettie died in childbirth, shortly followed by the new baby. This tragedy was the catalyst that prompted Dorsey's final abandonment of blues, and also the composition of his greatest gospel hit, "Precious Lord". Translated into over 50 languages and recorded by just about every gospel singer, black or white, it's undoubtedly the best known gospel song of all, rivalled perhaps only by "Peace In The Valley", also a Dorsey composition, and a million seller for both Red Foley and Elvis Presley.

In order to popularize the new music, Dorsey founded the Pilgrim Baptist Gospel Chorus at the behest of the church's pastor, Rev J C Austin, who was worried that his trained choir wasn't exerting as effective a pull on parishioners as gospel. Soon, Dorsey and his singing partner, Sallie Martin, who had the business flair Dorsey lacked, were travelling across the country to sell and perform his music and to set up and train new choruses. With Martin, Dorsey founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1932, as both a canny means of pushing his and her publications, and a greatly effective vehicle for "advancing gospel as both an art form and a way of life". In 1974 Dorsey was still its director and the annual meeting still drew 3,000 singers. By then Dorsey had stopped travelling to promote his music in concerts and was no longer composing, content to live a quietly prosperous life on the basis of his royalties.

In 1983 he was featured in the documentary film 'Say Amen, Somebody'. In 1992 academic Michael W Harris completed a study of Dorsey's life and works, The Rise Of Gospel Blues' and this is reviewed in this issue of Cross Rhythms. At his funeral, Dorsey's greatest song "Precious Lord" was sung. He is survived by his daughter Kathryn, son Mickey, daughter Doris and four grandchildren. - Tony Cummings CR

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