THOMAS DORSEY, the favourite gospel singer of the late Martin Luther King, was one of the United States' most important composer/publishers of gospel music, indeed he has been credited with inventing the term.
The music critic and author Tony Heilbut, in his book The Gospel Sound, said of Dorsey: 'He accomplished everything which contemporary music aims for, welding gospel, blues, jazz and country music into a distinctive musical style.' Dorsey's extraordinary flexibility, enabling him to work within any aspect of the blues field, jazz, country or gospel, earned him a deserved reputation as one of black music's greatest artists. He was awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Gospel Music by the Simmons Institute of South Carolina in 1946, and won the American Music Conference National Music Award in 1976.
Dorsey was born in 1899 in Villa Rica, Georgia, the son of a revivalist Baptist minister, Thomas Madison Dorsey. His mother, Etta Plant, was a church organist. The family moved to Atlanta when Dorsey was still a child, and he sang in local church choirs from the age of five. Frequently working as a water boy in a local circus, and a soft-drinks seller at the 81 Theatre, in Atlanta, he became influenced at 'The 81' by the popular musicians who played there, particularly the pianists. He taught himself barrelhouse piano and became known as 'Barrelhouse Tommy', working dance halls, private parties and gin palaces. Dorsey almost certainly underwent some personal conflict, loving and imitating bordello-inspired blues and jazz while acknowledging his religious upbringing. It may well have been this tension which produced his particular style of gospel music.
Dorsey briefly attended Morehouse College, in Atlanta, but began working with jazz bands when he moved to Chicago in 1916. Backing Ma Rainey on her touring shows betweeen 1924 and 1928, he led his own band, the Wildcats Jazz Band. Rainey and the Wildcats worked the theatre circuit through the Midwest and the South. Dorsey would frequently supplement his income as a demonstrator in local music stores. This connection became a stepping stone into the music- publishing business and he became an arranger for the Chicago Music Publishing company and the Vocalion Record company.
In 1928 he formed a partnership with the blues singer-guitarist Tampa Red. Dorsey adopted the name 'Georgia Tom' and together they produced the hit 'It's Tight Like That' (1928). The record was a million seller (an extraordinary achievement at that time), and went on to become a big blues hit, covered by a wide variety of other artists for the following four years. Eventually it sold well over seven million copies.
Dorsey continued to work with Vocalion as a talent scout, and from 1929 as a recording adviser for Brunswick Records. Dorsey wrote and recorded prolifically during the early Thirties, working with novelty groups such as the Hokum Boys and with the blues singer Memphis Minnie. He formed the Thomas Dorsey Gospel Songs Music Publishing Company and finally left the blues field in 1932 (after composing several hundred blues songs). He became Choral Director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church. His involvement with Gospel went from strength to strength and he was invited to direct other choirs and tour internationally. He founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and composed over a thousand devotional songs including standards such as 'Peace in the Valleys', 'A Little Talk With Jesus' and, in particular, 'Take My Hand Precious Lord'. Dorsey was prompted to write this song following the death of his first wife, during childbirth. The infant only survived for a day. This song was successfully covered by Mahalia Jackson and has been translated into more than 50 languages.
Dorsey served as assistant pastor of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, Chicago, throughout the Sixties and Seventies and carried out an extensive programme of lecture tours for schools, clubs and local radio shows. In 1975 he appeared in WBBM TV's documentary film The Devil's Music - A History of the Blues, on BBC television in 1976 and in the film Say Amen, Somebody, in 1982.
Dorsey performed under various names: Memphis Jim, Memphis Mose, Railroad Bill, Smokehouse Charley and Texas Tommy. There are rumoured to have been many others.