BORN: July 1, 1899 in Villa Rica, Georgia
DIED:January 23, 1993 in Chicago, Illinois
Buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago
Thomas Dorsey was a pivotal force in gospel music history who not only contributed classic gospel songs that remain standards still today, he sported an innovative, nonconformist spirit that drove him to create songs completely unlike the gospel music being written at that time. Dorsey’s songs have been sung by legendary artists such as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Tremaine Hawkins and countless others. His songs have also been a staple for Homecoming artists, including “Highway to Heaven,” sung so memorably by Jessy Dixon; “I’ll Tell It Wherever I Go,” sung by the Gaither Vocal Band; and his well-known classic, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” among others.
The story of Thomas Dorsey’s life is a stirring testament to God’s promise to be our strength when we are weak. Thomas was born into the home of a Baptist preacher. His mother was the church organist and he learned to play piano while he was young. Though he was raised on the music of the church, he eventually left home to pursue life as a jazz musician, moving from Georgia to Chicago at just 17 years old. From entertaining at parties to session work, he eventually began to work regularly as an accompanist with renowned blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
The songs Dorsey wrote during those early years of his life had a tendency toward brash, lewd lyrics set to rhythmic, jazzy melodies. The lifestyle in which he became entrenched was exhausting and eventually took a toll on his physical and mental health and, perhaps most of all, his spiritual health.
Thomas came to a crisis point at only 21 years old, when he became debilitated by the stress and went back home to Georgia to recuperate. His mother encouraged him to give up the demands of life as a secular jazz musician, but Thomas went back to Chicago as soon as felt well enough to resume his career. Three years later he found himself in the same situation again, only this time he was also grieving the overwhelming loss of his young wife and their newborn baby.
Our Redeemer has a remarkable way of drawing us to Himself during tragedy, and that is exactly what happened during this dif cult period of Dorsey’s life. He knew, once and for all, that he could not bear the weight of life without divine help. He began to seek spiritual counsel and surrounded himself with influences that would feed his depleted spirit. So, naturally, he latched onto gospel music. He was particularly inspired by the gospel compositions of Charles A. Tindley, who wrote “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” and “Leave It There,” among others.
This season of searching began a new era in Dorsey’s life and his compositions. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was written in the midst of his grief as a prayer, which he later said owed out so effortlessly, he could hardly take credit. The themes of his songs moved from defiance to hope. In keeping with his background, Dorsey’s gospel songs combined the syncopated blues and jazz rhythms he loved with new, eternal messages. He was criticized harshly by numerous churches for combining sacred lyrics with “secular” jazz music. Dorsey later reflected, “I have been thrown out of some of the best churches in America.”
The criticism only fueled Dorsey’s commitment to carry the banner as an innovator of songs for a new generation. It is interesting to note the controversy that surrounded his songs; because now, more than a half-century after they were written, Dorsey’s compositions have become beloved standards that are anything but controversial. In fact, a 1994 magazine article referred to Dorsey as “the father of Gospel music”— an appropriate title for his lasting influence.
1924 Formed the “Wild Cats Jazz Band”
1932 Began working as musical director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, where he remained until the late 1970s
1932 Founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses
2002 The Library of Congress honored his album Precious Lord: New Recordings of the Great Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey (1973) by adding it to the United States NationalRecording Registry
NOTED FOR BEING:
Credited with writing more than 400 blues and jazz songs
First member of the Gospel Music Association’s Living Hall of Fame
First African American elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame