“Georgia Tom” Dorsey first gained recognition as a blues pianist in the 1920s and later became known as the father of gospel music for his role in developing, publishing, and promoting the gospel blues. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1981.
Early Life and Career
Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born in Villa Rica on July 1, 1899, to Etta Plant Spencer and Thomas Madison Dorsey, an itinerant preacher and sharecropper. Dorsey was first exposed to music in church, where he heard shape-note singing and emotional, moaning spiritual songs. His mother was a respected organist, and Dorsey began playing the instrument at a young age.
In 1908 the family relocated to Atlanta, where Dorsey was introduced to a broader spectrum of secular music, especially on the Decatur Street scene. He worked at the Eighty-One Theater, where he witnessed performances by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, met Bessie Smith, and learned from house pianists Ed Butler, James Henningway, and Lark Lee, as well as from Eighty-One Theater house pianist Eddie Heywood. From age twelve to fourteen Dorsey played at house parties and brothels in Atlanta, gaining the nickname “Barrel House Tom.”
Move to Chicago
In 1916 Dorsey moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he continued his musical training at the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging, and in 1920 he published his first composition. Throughout the 1920s Dorsey’s rising fame derived from his blues music, beginning with a job in Will Walker’s Whispering Syncopaters. To earn money Dorsey worked as a composer and arranger for the Chicago Music Publishing Company under J. Mayo Williams and as a music coach for Paramount and Vocalion Records. Meanwhile, his decision to publish his own music paid off when both Monette Moore and King Oliver recorded his pieces.
Religious music reappeared as a musical influence in 1921, when Dorsey heard W. M. Nix sing at the National Baptist Convention; the power of Nix’s performance inspired Dorsey to begin composing sacred music. He registered his first religious piece in 1922 and became director of music at New Hope Baptist Church, where he fused sacred music with his blues technique to become one of the progenitors of gospel blues.
Dorsey continued playing the blues as well, and in 1924 Ma Rainey chose him to organize and lead her Wild Cats Jazz Band. However, Dorsey’s greatest blues success came in 1928 when “Tampa Red” Whittaker brought him the lyrics to a song called “It’s Tight like That,” and the two had an instant, bawdy hit. Under the name “Georgia Tom,” Dorsey recorded more than sixty sides with Tampa Red, in addition to accompanying many famous blues performers, including Scrapper Blackwell, Big Bill Broonzy, Frankie Jaxson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Memphis Minnie, and Victoria Spivey.
At the height of his blues career, Dorsey’s gospel music also gained popularity, and his work spread throughout the Chicago religious community after Willie Mae Ford Smith sang “If You See My Savior” at the National Baptist Convention. His second church appointment came in 1931, when the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago hired Dorsey to organize a chorus, and in February 1932 Chicago’s second largest church, Pilgrim Baptist, employed Dorsey to organize and direct its own gospel chorus. In August of that year Dorsey organized a performance for the three gospel blues choruses with which he was involved, and this collaboration became the impetus for the founding of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. Dorsey was elected as the founding national president, a position he held until his nominal retirement in 1983. This period of church involvement marked a turning point in Dorsey’s career as he moved away from performing solos and duets toward directing large groups.
In 1932 Dorsey’s wife, Nettie Harper, died during childbirth, and their son died the following day. This tragedy caused Dorsey to renounce blues music and inspired him to write his famous piece “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” the first of his religious songs to mirror lyrically the emotional and personal impact of his blues compositions.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Dorsey worked extensively with Mahalia Jackson, establishing Jackson as the preeminent gospel singer and Dorsey as the dominant gospel composer of the time. His work with Jackson and other female singers, including Della Reese and Clara Ward, ensured Dorsey’s continued prominence.
Dorsey died in Chicago on January 23, 1993, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Although he didn’t invent gospel blues, Dorsey was one of its earliest performers during the genre’s transition from performance by guitar evangelists to performance by large choruses. Furthermore, his foresight in deciding to publish all of his material, coupled with the large audiences for his music at some of Chicago’s prominent churches and at the National Baptist Convention, helped Dorsey to become an icon.