Thomas Dorsey was born in Georgia in 1899. His father was a minister and a sharecrop farmer as well as a one-room schoolteacher. Thomas grew up with religion and music being strong influences. Both his mother (organ) and uncle (guitar) introduced him to a variety of music. From his mother, he was shaped by religious hymns while his uncle introduced him to country blues.
When the family moved to Atlanta, Thomas was lost. He quit school when he was 12, having only finished the fourth grade. He began to frequent vaudeville shows and hoped he got a job as a musician.
When Thomas was 20, he moved to Chicago where he found his musical skills were out-of-date. He started composing music. He began with blues compositions but also began to compose religious music. It was his work with Ma Rainey that gave him a step up in his career.
Thomas fell into depression and even thought about suicide. When he was inspired by a minister, he returned to religious music but with a blues influence. At the time, blues music was considered sinful and Thomas found little interest in his new compositions.
It was a request of the pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church to form a choir that returned Thomas back to religious music. That became the birth of more joyful music in African American churches. The result was a theatrical performance moving those in the congregation.
Gospel music had been transformed from its classical influences to a more lively engaging style. Not everyone accepted this new approach to religious music. But congregations valued the new form of religious music and pastors gradually began to change.
Thomas led a quiet life, never seeking acclaim. He traveled extensively. While his music was joyful, Thomas rarely smiled. His life was one of religious devotion and a melancholy persona.
At the end of his life, Thomas had written 1,000 gospel and 2,000 blues songs. The favorite song of Martin Luther King, Jr was a composition of Thomas’. MLK had requested that Thomas sing it for him, but he was assassinated prior to Thomas having a chance to sing it for him. Mahalia Jackson sang the song in Thomas’ place at the funeral of MLK. Four years later, Mahalia Jackson died, and Aretha Franklin sang that song for her. Aretha Franklin – Precious Lord, Take My Hand – 1972 – Funeral Of Mahalia Jackson – YouTube. The inspiration of the music of Thomas Dorsey continues to inspire today.
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“Gospel music is the purest thing there is, on this Earth.” – Elvis Presley