During the first week of January 2006, billowing flames gutted, ravaged, and razed the Pilgrim Baptist Church, a historic landmark on Chicago’s South Side. Parishioners and other onlookers were devastated by the magnitude of the destruction to the more than 100-year-old edifice. At one time the church had boasted a membership of 10,000 and been the church home of the famous American arranger, pianist, and composer, Thomas A. Dorsey. Not only was the versatile and prolific Dorsey known as the “Father of Gospel Music,” he was also considered to be one of the most influential figures ever to impact the gospel music genre.
While the fire reduced all but the shell of the Pilgrim Baptist Church to rubble, it did not destroy the community spirit of the congregation. It also could not diminish the legacy of Rev. Dorsey, who had written more than 1,000 songs in his lifetime, half of which were published.
From 1932 into the 1970s, Reverend Dorsey organized and directed the choir at Pilgrim Baptist Church. Legendary gospel icons— including Mahalia Jackson, Sallie Martin, and Rosetta Tharpe—began their music careers singing his songs of praise and adoration to the living God.
Considered one of the most revered figures in spiritual music, Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey was born in Villa Rica, Georgia. A child prodigy, Dorsey taught himself how to play a wide range of instruments. He learned shape-note singing (a style of unaccompanied singing and sight reading) and emotional, moaning spiritual songs while attending church with his parents. His musical talents were so widely recognized that a gospel tune was called “a Dorsey” until Dorsey himself coined the name “gospel.” Then his music was known as “gospel” or “ gospel blues.”
After moving to Chicago in 1916, Dorsey continued his musical training at the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging. He published his first composition in 1920, and to earn money, he worked as a composer and arranger for the Chicago Music Publishing Company.
In 1921, after he heard William M. Nix’s inspirational singing at the National Baptist Convention, Dorsey decided to begin com-posing sacred music. He registered his first composition in 1922. After becoming the director of music at New Hope Baptist Church, he combined his sacred music with his blues technique. This collective effort made him one of the progenitors of gospel blues. Dorsey began battling ongoing, incapacitating depression in 1926. In 1928, he made Jesus Christ his personal Savior. However, for financial reasons he continued to compose and play his unusual blend of blues in secular music venues.
In 1932, Dorsey’s wife, Nettie Harper, died in childbirth and his newborn son died soon after. Distraught and stricken with grief, Dorsey renounced blues music and consecrated his life to doing the will of the Lord. He even made his living through selling sheet music rather than going back to the blues circuit.
One day as he consoled himself at his piano, he composed a song that has blessed and comforted countless hurting hearts down through the ages: “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” This song incorporates elements from his blues background, African American spirituals, and Christian hymns, and it has been translated into 32 languages. In fact, Mahalia Jackson (whom he worked with extensively in the 1930s and 1940s) sang it at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Her work with Rev. Dorsey established Mahalia as the preeminent gospel singer and Dorsey as the dominant gospel composer of that era.
Elvis Presley’s recording of Dorsey’s second most popular God-inspired song, “Peace in the Valley,” sold millions of copies. It is considered to be Dorsey’s most widely recognized work and was a nationwide hit in both African American and white arenas. Dorsey wrote the song for Mahalia Jackson, who was his demo singer at the time. However, it had its greatest success in the white market due to Elvis Presley, Red Foley, and other white Southern gospel artists who scored hit after hit with the song. “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” was another of Dorsey’s greatest songs. It, too, has blessed untold millions across the United States and beyond.
In 1933, while serving as musical director of Pilgrim Baptist Church, Dorsey founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses and presided as its president for more than 40 years. He continued to write songs but did not record anything after 1934. Dorsey’s music ministry was not with-out controversy, especially in conservative Christian circles. Some felt that “his rhythmic jazz and blues-influenced style made his music unworthy to be played in churches.”4 It is reported that on some occasions, when he performed what was labeled his “sacred blues,” Dorsey was even thrown out of some of the best churches. Today, Thomas A. Dorsey is lauded as a Christian, an accomplished pianist, choir director, and a prolific composer. We praise God that He saved Thomas A. Dorsey. His God-given gift still comforts us through the music that flowed through this wonderful man of God.