Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1899-1993), African American composer, music publisher, “father” of gospel blues, was born in Villa Rica in northern Georgia. His father was a farmer and itinerant preacher and his mother a church musician. When he was nine, the family moved to Atlanta for better economic opportunity. It was there that young Dorsey was exposed to a wider diversity of church music and also heard blues music as performed by singers such as Bessie Smith.
At the age of 17 Dorsey headed north to Chicago where he quickly became a sought-after blues pianist–”Georgia Tom” Dorsey–in the blues clubs and bars on the city’s South Side, accompanying singers such as Ma Rainey. Troubled by his conscience, Dorsey often attended church and in 1921 underwent a conversion experience at a Baptist meeting. Although he began to write sacred songs, Dorsey continued to write and sing the blues to provide for his family. Only in the early 1930s did he finally turn his back on secular music entirely, landing a job as the choir director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1932. That same year his wife died giving birth to a stillborn child, a crisis that led him to write what would become his most enduring song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Over the next decade and a half Dorsey took to the road in support of Gospel singers Sallie Martin and Mahalia Jackson who provided important exposure for his upbeat, innovative songs. While there was some resistance to Dorsey’s songs in some African American congregations with middle class aspirations, by and large his music was embraced and by the end of World War II appeared regularly within the context of Sunday morning worship. By the 1950s Dorsey’s music had become so influential that songs such as “Peace in the Valley,” “Search Me, Lord,” and “Old Ship of Zion” were being covered not only by white, Southern Gospel artists but by white secular artists such as Red Foley and Elvis Presley. From that period forward Dorsey devoted most of his time to promoting gospel music conventions through the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses he had co-founded back in 1932, and enjoyed his status as a living legend of Gospel music.
For further reading see Michael W. Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church (Oxford, 1992).