The Rev. Thomas A Dorsey was the founder of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs, composer of ‘Precious Lord’, mentor of Mahalia Jackson and a wonderful singer and pianist in his own right, but as ‘Georgia Tom’, he had a great early career in the Blues. He was a talent-scout, accompanist, arranger and songwriter in 20s Chicago, where he played and recorded with Tampa Red. But for a fundamental conversion at the age of 33, he might be remembered as one of the Fathers of the Blues rather than ‘The Father of Gospel Music’.
Thomas was born in Villa Rica GA in 1899, the son of a sharecropping preacher and a church-organ playing mother. Young Tom learned his way around the keyboard and when the family moved to Atlanta, he would help out at the ’81 Theatre’ where he saw Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith perform. He began playing piano around the local parties and fish-fries under the name ‘Barrelhouse Tom’ and when the family moved again to Chicago in 1918, Tom had a new outlet for his musical skills. He also enrolled in College to study composition and after attending the Baptist Convention in 1921, he began composing religious pieces with a decidedly Bluesy flavour, comfortably mixing the sacred and the profane. In 1924, he formed the Wildcats Jazz Band to accompany Ma Rainey on a tour, and he also began to work with ‘Ink’ Williams at Paramount Records as a composer and arranger. When he published some of his own music it was taken up by stars like King Oliver and Monette Moore.
‘Georgia Tom’ takes lead vocals with Tampa Red on this track that started the ‘hokum’ craze;
In 1928, Tom met fellow Georgian Hudson Whittaker who played slide-guitar and performed under the name Tampa Red. They teamed up to exploit the latest trend for piano/guitar duos following Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell‘s smash hit, ‘How Long, How Long Blues’, in June of that year. As Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, their second record for Paramount was ‘Tight Like That’, a rude ‘hokum’ Blues that became a big hit. They joined up with tiny transvestite Frankie ‘Half-Pint’ Jaxon to form The Hokum Boys, and recorded many more novelties and ‘hokum’ songs in the same vein. After 1930, Tom was drawn more towards Gospel music, although he still recorded Blues as a solo artist and with Tampa Red. He was also working as a session pianist for the Brunswick label, backing such artists as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivey and Ma Rainey again.
Another ‘hokum’ Blues, this time with Kansas City Kitty!
When Willie-Mae Ford sang his composition, ‘If You See My Saviour’, Chicago’s religious community really began to notice Tom, and in 1932 he was appointed as musical director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, one of the biggest in town. Later that year, Tom’s wife Nettie died in childbirth, and the baby, Thomas Jr. died two days later. In his grief, Tom expressed his feelings in his most famous composition, ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’. He renounced the Blues and dedicated the rest of his life to religious music. The Rev. Thomas Dorsey founded The National Convention of Gospel Choirs; he set up his own independent publishing company for Gospel music alongside singer Sallie Martin, and his name was so closely identified with the genre that new Gospel songs became known as ‘dorseys’. He went on to compose ‘Peace in the Valley’ and many other well-loved songs which were later recorded by countless choirs, as well as artists like Elvis, Aretha and Tennessee Ernie Ford. His most famous musical protege was Mahalia Jackson who was closely associated with Rev. Dorsey’s music for all of her career. His song ‘Precious Lord’ was played at the funerals of Dr. Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson, and has become something of a ‘national anthem of consolation’.
The Rev. Dorsey’s iconic composition, performed by his most famous protegee, Mahalia Jackson;
The Rev. Dorsey remained as President of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs until 1983, and he went to meet his maker ten years later.