He began his musical career as Georgia Tom
, playing barrelhouse piano in one of Al Capone’s Chicago speakeasies...
He led Gertrude "Ma" Rainey's Tub Jug Washboard Band
, recorded "Tight Like That
" with Hudson "Tampa Red" Whittaker
, and wrote more than four hundred rhythm and blues and jazz songs, including "Riverside Blues"
(recorded by King Oliver
), and "I Just Want A Daddy To Call My Own"
(recorded by Monette Moore
). He accompanied many famous blues performers, including Scrapper Blackwell
, Big Bill Broonzy
, Frankie Jaxson
, Blind Lemon Jefferson
, Memphis Minnie
, Bertha "Chippie" Hill
, Papa Charlie Jackson
, and Victoria Spivey
Then his wife and child died. Georgia Tom had a nervous breakdown, and when he emerged from it he was Thomas A. Dorsey
, now considered the father of gospel music
Dorsey, while embracing the Lord, never gave up his hold on the blues. Instead, he fused the two, applying inspirational lyrics to the melodic and rhythmic ideas that powered his secular hits. It wasn't a conscious decision, and it scandalized many God-fearing Baptists at the time. But as Dorsey told blues scholar Anthony Heilbut: "When a thing becomes a part of you, you don't know when it's gonna manifest itself. And it's not your business to know."
By marrying the spiritual uplift of church-schooled lyrics to the physical energy of blues-fired music, Dorsey was able to reach his audience in ways that even the greatest preachers couldn't. Through the efforts of Dorsey and singer Sallie Martin
, gospel choruses began flourishing throughout South Side churches in Chicago. Dorsey founded his own gospel choir, and formed the first black gospel publishing company, the Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel Songs Music Publishing Company, to profit from the sale of sheet music. Dorsey also partnered with Martin in founding the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses
. He continued to write music, and wrote some of gospel's most unforgettable songs, including "Peace In the Valley
" (which later became a hit for Elvis Presley).
Most notably, Dorsey nurtured the career of gospel's first international star, the incredible Mahalia Jackson
, whom he had met in 1929. The pair sang together at Pilgrim Baptist Church
(where Dorsey was Music Director), and Dorsey went on the road with her beginning in the late 1930s and through the War years. Later Jackson would sing his song "Take My Hand, Precious Lord
" at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The scope of his life's work is, frankly, almost dizzying. Seemingly determined to surpass his efforts in secular music, Dorsey had over four hundred gospel songs published and composed hundreds more--Heilbut says that by a conservative estimate, Dorsey wrote one out of four modern gospel standards. Along with Sallie Martin and the legendary Willie Mae Ford Smith
, Dorsey's music was celebrated in the 1983 documentary "Say Amen, Somebody"
, where Dorsey appeared appeared, broken hips and all, waxing eloquently about his dual lives in the blues and the gospel.
"When I realized how hard some folks were fighting the gospel idea, I was determined to carry the banner." Dorsey once said. "I borrowed five dollars and sent out 500 copies of my song, 'If You See My Savior,' to churches throughout the country....It was three years before I got a single order. I felt like going back to the blues." In the end, the message was heard, and Dorsey was the first African-American elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame
and the Gospel Music Association’s Living Hall of Fame.
He capped it all of with a Trustees Award from the Grammys in 1992, the year before his death.
Dorsey's influence was enormous. Wrote the L. A. Times on his passing, "It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that gospel music would not exist as we know it today were it not for Thomas A. Dorsey. And if that's not good cause for a hallelujah
, it's hard to imagine what would be."