|Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey
Yesterday, July 1 was the birthday of two great American musicians born in 1899 in Villa Rica, Georgia.
One was a great blues pianist and occasional singer who played with greats like Ma Rainey and Tampa Red. He co-wrote and sang on Red's best-known song. "Tight Like That" -- and he recorded a few sides under his own name, Georgia Tom.
The other was the Father of Gospel Music, credited with, basically, inventing the genre of Black gospel, bringing the passion of the blues to sacred music ... and writing some of the greatest gospel songs ever known. He even coined the term "gospel music." His name was Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey.
Most of you probably realize Georgia Tom and Thomas Dorsey were the same guy,
He was the son of a Baptist preacher and a church organist. Some say he was a child prodigy. At first he adopted the stage name "Barrelhouse Tom" before settling on "Georgia Tom."
By the age of 19, he moved to Chicago, where he knocked around n some local jazz and blues bands before starting his own group, The Wildcat Jazz Band, which backed up Ma Rainey. Tampa Red was a guitarist in that band.
But in the 1920s, Dorsey's life took a turn toward darkness. According to a PBS documentary caled This Far by Faith:
At twenty-one, his hectic and unhealthy schedule led to a nervous breakdown. He convalesced back home in Atlanta. There, his mother admonished him to stop playing the blues and serve the Lord. He ignored her and returned to Chicago, playing with Ma Rainey. He married his sweetheart, Nettie Harper. But in 1925, a second breakdown left Dorsey unable to play music.
It should be noted that different accounts have several conflicting dates for these "nervous break downs." According to some sources after the second one he sought the spiritual guidance of a faith healer named Bishop H.H. Haley who, Dorsey told biographer, Michael Harris, extracted a `live serpent' out of Dorsey’s throat.
According to the story, Haley told Dorsey, "There is no reason for you to be looking so poorly and feeling so badly, The Lord has too much work for you to let you die." And he helped convince the young musician to turn away from those Devil blues and dedicated his talents to music for the Lord.
But Dorsey hadn't hit bottom yet. According to This Far by Faith:
After his recovery ... Dorsey committed himself to composing sacred music. However, mainstream churches rejected his songs. Then, in August 1932, Dorsey's life was thrown into crisis when his wife and son died during childbirth. In his grief, he turned to the piano for comfort. The tune he wrote, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," came, he says, direct from God.
Dorsey started the Dorsey House of Music, an independent music publishing company for Black gospel composers, in 1932. He established the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, serving as its president for more than 40 years. He would begin an association with Mahalia Jackson, one of the greatest gospel singers of all time
And he sang nothing but gospel music until his death in 1993
So happy birthday, Reverend! Here are a bunch of his songs.
Let's start off with Georgia Tom:
Here is is with a lady called Kansas City Kitty
Here is his most famous song, recorded with his pal Tampa Red
Now on to Dorsey's gospel career. This isn't one of his better known songs, but it's a good one.
Here is Mahalia Jackson singing "(There Will Be) Peace in the Valley," which Dorsey wrote for her in 1937. The song went on to be hits for Red Foley and, later, Elvis Presley. Johnny Cash also did a great version (the first one I ever heard back in the '60s.)
Here is Rev. Dorsey's best known song, performed late in his life