How Thomas Dorsey, the Father of Gospel Music, Gave Up a Secular Career for ‘Precious Lord’

Thomas Dorsey was 33 years old and had a flourishing career in secular music. In the previous 15 years, the Georgia native had moved to Chicago, completed his musical studies while picking up an endless number of side jobs, and eventually found a way to support himself and his expectant wife as a full-time musician. But it wasn’t to last. In the next months, Dorsey would lose his spouse and newborn son, a tragedy which spurred him to heed the advice of those closest to him. He would leave the secular music scene behind and fully dedicate his musical gifts to the church.

Over the next 60 years, Dorsey became known as the “Father of Gospel Music,” penning hundreds of songs and redefining the genre in beat, rhythm, and tempo. As The Voice reported, the Chicago musician dubbed his work “songs with a message.”

Nothing will take the place of gospel music. … Somebody might do it differently or add something to it, but any power in the music must come from God … and it’s all about what God wants.

The child entrepreneur
Thomas A. Dorsey was born in Villa Rica, Georgia, a small town outside of Atlanta, in 1899. He was the son of Thomas Madison Dorsey, a Morehouse College–educated, itinerant Baptist preacher, and Etta Plant, a Villa Rica native. When they married, Etta’s family was very influential in Villa Rica and owned a significant amount of land. But within a few years, the family lost their property, allegedly due to back taxes. Thomas’s father, a respected teacher and preacher, was forced to work as a sharecropper on the very land formerly owned by his wife’s family. Within a few years, the Dorseys moved to Atlanta in 1908, where both parents worked to help the financially struggling family survive.

The adjustment wasn’t easy for Thomas. He was placed a year behind his classmates in the Atlanta public school system and his peers often made fun of his speech and clothes. Thomas dropped out of school at the age of 10 and began working at a prominent black vaudeville theater, carrying water and doing other odd jobs. He reminisced about those early experiences in an interview with author Viv Broughton in her book Black Gospel: An Illustrated History of the Gospel Sound:

As a boy, I sold pop, ginger ale, and red rock at the 81 Theater, and I got a chance to meet all the stars … and they would want a pop or something, a cold drink on credit until payday, and I got a chance to know them all! I stayed ’round that theatre, I’d hang ‘round that theatre, and I learned a lot. I learned blues; I could play the piano, and I think it paid off very well for me.

As a young boy, Thomas had learned to play the piano from his mother, for whom music had been a significant part of her own family life. (Etta was an organist and her brother Phil was a well-known blues guitar player.) After the family moved to Atlanta, Thomas began walking 30 miles a week to take formal music lessons. As his musical ability improved, Thomas began playing for churches, house rent parties, bordellos, and women’s teas to help supplement his family’s income.

The Chicago challenge
In 1916, at the age of 17, Dorsey moved north to Chicago to pursue a musical career. Success was initially hard to come by. Dorsey soon learned he couldn’t earn union scale wages as a musician without a card, and he couldn’t obtain the card without a formal music education. (Musicians’ wages were paid according to a scale determined by their credentials with the professional Chicago union of musicians.)

To pay for his education, Dorsey worked days at a steel mill in Gary, Indiana, attended school at night, and established his own nightly rent-party circuit. (Rent parties were parties organized by tenants to pay for their rent.) In 1919, Dorsey completed his musical studies at the Chicago College of Composition and Arrangement and obtained his union card. Now he was free to play anywhere in Chicago and performed with various groups, including the Whispering Syncopators and a jazz orchestra.

Dorsey also joined Pilgrim Baptist Church. A preacher’s kid who had confessed faith in Christ as a child, he had also been influenced by his father’s flamboyant style, which he often imitated on the family porch in Villa Rica. But faith wasn’t a serious priority in Dorsey’s life until his early 20s, when he experienced a second conversion at a National Baptist Convention (NBC) in 1921. He related his experience to Steve Turner in his book An Illustrated History of Gospel:

There was a Baptist convention up the street from where I was staying. I was playing rags and blues at parties, and things on Saturday night. There was a fellow who came to the convention by the name of Nix who stayed with my uncle, and he got up one night and sang “I Know a Great Savior, I Do Don’t You?” After he finished, the minister said anyone could join the church. If you were interested, they would send you to a church of your choice. I thought, “Here’s my chance.” I was playing jazz music. In fact, I was working in clubs. So I quit. I walked off my job.

Initially, Dorsey’s conversion spurred him to end his secular music career, and he began playing for a storefront church. But the salary wasn’t enough to pay his bills. So, once again, Dorsey began to work in jazz and blues clubs. In 1924, Dorsey, with the Wild Cats Jazz Band, debuted with Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, at the Grand Theater in Chicago. Performing with Rainey was a significant career break for Dorsey: She was known as the “Mother of the Blues” and composed over 100 songs during the mid-1920s. Dorsey also scored and transcribed music for artists and singers, working closely with Mayo “Ink” Williams, who promoted music produced for a black audience by Paramount Studios.

Despite personal success, depression plagued Dorsey throughout his career. He appeared on stage one night with Ma Rainey and was unable to play. As biographer Michael Harris recounts in The Rise of Gospel Blues:

He said that he is playing at this club, and he tries to play some more and he can’t. I would say to him what happened? Were you paralyzed? numbness? He doesn’t remember any of these things, and he said, but I know my fingers—I know I could move my fingers. I just couldn’t play. Think of that. I have the muscular ability to move, but I can’t play. In other words, I can’t make music. I can’t create.

Some of those close to Dorsey, however, believed something else was at work. His wife and sister-in-law were unhappy that he had continued to pursue a secular musical career. Dorsey’s wife, Nettie, whom he married in 1925, believed that God had called him to write and sing gospel music and that the source of his inner turmoil stemmed from ignoring God’s calling.

Yet his secular career was rising. In 1928, Dorsey and guitarist Tampa Red released, “It’s Tight Like That”—a national sensation and a religious scandal. The song’s bawdy lyrics described lovemaking between a man and a woman. It was an instant success, selling over 500,000 copies. But pastors scoffed at a honky-tonk blues player trying to compose church music. They felt his music wasn’t suitable for dignified church worship.

Things began to change for Dorsey in the 1930s when influential NBC musicians began championing his music. A performance of Dorsey’s composition of “If You See My Savior” during a morning devotion left people “slain in the spirit.” Two NBC musicians gave Dorsey permission to set up a booth at the 1930 convention where he sold more than 4,000 copies of that song. For his part, Dorsey continued to play secular music while he visited churches and asked pastors to listen to his religious compositions.

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Source: Christianity Today