Remembering Thomas Andrew Dorsey, the Father of Black Gospel Music

Thomas Andrew Dorsey, the celebrated African-American musician who was known famously as “the father of Black gospel music” was born on this day in 1899. Dorsey, a composer, pianist, conductor and conductor of choirs, was a man believed to have used music as the language of his soul.

Dorsey is famously known for composing songs such as “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley”. He was so influential in the black gospel music field and due to his impact and unique style, many new compositions of songs were categorized as “dorseys” in his honour.

Thomas Dorsey’s leadership in Gospel music is believed to be responsible for the rise of the gospel sound and the legacy carried on by the present-day Gospel artists.

It would sound like a regular achievement but like many musicians who share stories of how they actually started singing from the church before settling down in secular music, Dorsey’s was a case in the reverse.

Dorsey was born in Villa Rica, GA on July 1, 1899, but was raised in the Atlanta area. His infantile years exposed him to the traditional Dr. Watts hymns as his father was a Baptist preacher and his mom a pianist in the church. He also got exposed to early blues and jazz – a genre of music he would soon become very active in.

Thomas Dorsey singing in church/Inspirational Christians

Dorsey was interested in music as a young boy and hence, taught himself a wide range of instruments which he went on to play blues and ragtime while he was still in his teens. As a child prodigy, he became a very prolific composer, authoring witty, slightly racy blues songs like the underground hit, “It’s Tight Like That.”

In 1916, at the age of 17, Dorsey moved north to Chicago to pursue a musical career. There, Dorsey soon learned he couldn’t earn union scale wages as a musician without a card, and he couldn’t obtain the card without a formal music education because musicians’ wages were paid according to a scale determined by their credentials with the professional Chicago union of musicians.

To pay for his education, Dorsey worked days at a steel mill in Gary, Indiana, taking evening lessons at school. He soon established his own nightly rent-party circuit. By 1918, Dorsey had settled in Chicago and within months of his arrival, he began playing with area jazz bands including the Les Hite’s Whispering Serenaders and a jazz orchestra.

In 1919, Dorsey completed his musical studies at the Chicago College of Composition and Arrangement and obtained his union card. Now, performing under the name Georgia Tom, he was free to play anywhere in Chicago.

Photo Credit: YouTube

Building on his experience and influence from such groups, Dorsey formed a group of his own known as the Wildcats Jazz Band which traveled in support of Ma Rainey, one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of blues singers to ever record.

By 1928, Dorsey suffered a second nervous breakdown in many years which pushed him to opt for early retirement from the music business. However, a two-year recovery period would allow him to rethink this decision. During the period, a minister gave Dorsey enough convincing reasons to return to music. This time, though, this minister encouraged Dorsey to move from singing Blues to church music – Gospel.

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Source: Keep the Faith