Were it not for the tragedy that befell Thomas A. Dorsey on this date, the world might never have known the glorious sound of gospel music.
Dorsey, who was born outside Atlanta in 1899 and moved to Chicago as a teenager, was a popular blues pianist around town. He had toured with Ma Rainey throughout the Roaring ’20s and sold millions of copies of his blues song “It’s Tight Like That.”Then his life was shattered. While on the road, Dorsey was informed that his wife had died during childbirth. Rushing home, he learned that their child, too, had died.
“My wife died and the baby died, and I had my life’s hope in the baby,” Dorsey said later. “I lost quite a bit of trust. I lost a lot of confidence in the Lord or somebody. It was quite a while before I could get myself together.”
When he did, Dorsey cast aside the blues life and poured his musical gifts into writing songs of faith. He had dabbled in religious music before, but now it became his passion, prompting him to write a new type of religious song.
By introducing syncopated rhythms, lamenting vocal lines and other blues elements to religious music, Dorsey invented the gospel song–a music neither totally sacred nor wholly secular.
Just a month after his personal disaster, Dorsey penned “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which would become one of the most popular of all gospel songs. Over the years, he wrote such anthems as “Peace in the Valley,” “Today” and “Search Me, Lord.”
Some churchgoers balked at Dorsey’s steeped-in-blues, Jazz Age church songs, but the music eventually caught on in churches across the South Side. For years, the radiant tunes simply were called “Dorseys.” After establishing gospel music at Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd Street and Indiana Avenue, he created the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
He started the first gospel publishing company and staged the first commercial gospel concerts– all in the 1930s. Soon the South Side was the epicenter of gospel music.
It was Dorsey who coached, trained and inspired the first generation of gospel singers, with Chicago greats such as Roberta Martin, Sallie Martin, Clara Ward and Mahalia Jackson taking the Dorsey sound to churches and concert halls around the world.
The gospel stars who followed– including James Cleveland, the Edwin Hawkins Singers (who hit the pop charts with “Oh, Happy Day” in 1969), the Soul Stirrers, Albertina Walker’s Caravans, the Barrett Sisters, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews and Bessie Griffin–built upon Dorsey’s innovations.
Gospel music today is an international industry, its sound having evolved into something considerably more high-tech than the sweet, piano-and-tambourine settings of Dorsey’s youth. Yet the music owes its origins and its flowering to Dorsey, who created an entire genre of music and taught the world how to sing it.