Thomas A. Dorsey was famed as the “Father of Gospel Music,” but earlier in his career he was “Georgia Tom,” a Chicago blues pianist, Ma Rainey accompanist, partner of Tampa Red, and composer of the some of the most humorous and risqué songs of the 1920s and early ’30s.
Dorsey was born July 1, 1899, in Villa Rica, Georgia, and developed his piano-playing skills as a teenager in Atlanta, where he was known as “Barrelhouse Tom.” He moved to Chicago in 1916 and began playing with local groups, and started traveling with Ma Rainey’s troupe in the 1920s. Dorsey learned to write, arrange, and publish songs, and by 1923 his compositions were being recorded for the Paramount label by Alberta Hunter and others. He collaborated with Tampa Red from 1928 to 1932, and their Vocalion recording of “It’s Tight Like That” became one of the biggest hits of the era. In need of a name that could be paired with Tampa Red’s, Tom Dorsey became Georgia Tom. Dorsey also had a number of releases of his own, in addition to recording with Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Jim Jackson, the Hokum Boys, and others. With his many roles, he could be viewed as the Willie Dixon of his particular era of Chicago blues.
Dorsey was also writing gospel songs at the same time, and eventually left the blues to devote himself to gospel. He did not record much as a gospel singer, but launched a lucrative career as a music publisher and wrote two famous gospel songs, “Precious Lord,” inspired by the tragic deaths of his wife and day-old child, and “Peace in the Valley.” One of the keys to gospel, a more modern style than the old spirituals and hymns, Dorsey said, was the infusion of “the feeling and the pathos and the moans and the blues . . . that got me over.”
Dorsey directed choirs at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, in addition to organizing national gospel conventions and operating his publishing business. He died on January 23, 1993. Dorsey never condemned the blues, and told Living Blues magazine in 1975: “There’s just as great a message in the blues as it is in gospel. It depends on the position in which the individual is in.”