Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1900-1993), often called the Father of Gospel Music, migrated from Atlanta to Chicago as a young man, thus exemplifying the experience of many southern blacks of his day. This journey is also critical to an understanding of what Michael W. Harris called "the rise of gospel blues" in his book of that title, which chronicles the role Dorsey's music played in urban churches.
Dorsey, one of five children, was born in Villa Rica, Georgia on July 1, 1900, but soon moved with his family to Atlanta. His father was a Baptist minister with a flamboyant pulpit style. His mother played a portable organ and piano wherever the elder Dorsey preached. Young Dorsey was influenced musically by his mother's brother, an itinerant blues musician. He also was influenced by her brother-in-law, a teacher who favored shaped note singing - also known as "fasola" (fa-so-la), a rambunctious, 19th-century congregational style propagated by songbooks and popular in the rural South in which four distinct shapes (the diamond, for one) correspond to specific notes on the musical scale. In The Rise of Gospel Blues Michael Harris noted, "Other than slave spirituals, the white Protestant hymns and shaped note music, Dorsey describes a type of 'moaning' as the only other style of religious song he recalls." He left school early and was soon hanging around theaters and dance halls. His association with musicians there encouraged him to practice at home on his mother's organ, and by age 12, he claimed that he could play the piano very well. Before long he was earning money playing at private parties and bordellos. In order to improve his skills and identify himself as a professional, he briefly took piano lessons from a teacher associated with Morehouse College, as well as a harmony course at the college itself.
Moved to Chicago
Dorsey's desire to become a professional musician motivated him to move to Philadelphia in 1916. However, his plans soon changed and he settled in Chicago, then abuzz with both migrant workers and migrant musicians. According to Harris, Dorsey's piano style was already somewhat out of vogue by then. Although he was still able to find work, he remained on the periphery of the music community. Harris observed the Dorsey was held back by his lack of technique and repertoire, which prevented him from joining the union. A further obstacle was the sheer size and wealth of the musical community. In order to increase his chances for employment, he enrolled in the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging. Thus, for the rest of his life, Dorsey able to find work as a composer and arranger. By 1920, he was prospering. However, the demanding schedule of playing at night, working at other jobs during the day, and studying in between led him to the first of two nervous breakdowns. He was so ill that his mother had to go to Chicago to bring him back to Atlanta.
Dorsey returned to Chicago in 1921. His uncle encouraged him to attend the National Baptist Convention, where he was impressed by the singing of W. M. Nix. As Dorsey related in The Rise of Gospel Blues: "My inner-being was thrilled. My soul was a deluge of divine rapture; my emotions were aroused; my heart was inspired to become a great singer and worker in the Kingdom of the Lord - and impress people just as this great singer did that Sunday morning." Dorsey soon began composing sacred songs and took a job as director of music at New Hope Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side, where he described the congregation's singing of spirituals "like down home," noting that the congregants also clapped to his music.
Dorsey's conversion was fleeting. He was soon playing with the Whispering Syncopators, making a salary commensurate with professional theater musicians. As the popularity of the blues increased in New York and Chicago, especially among non-black audiences, Dorsey was able to adapt his style to the tastes of the day. Singers like Bessie Smith, who embodied the southern tradition, were also popular, especially among black Americans.
Debut at Grand Theater
In 1924, Dorsey made his debut as "Georgia Tom" with Ma Rainey at the Grand Theater. He continued to tour with her, even after he wed in 1925, until he suffered the second of his breakdowns in 1926. The pressures of touring overwhelmed him and Dorsey considered suicide. His sister-in-law convinced him to attend church. While at a service, he had a vision, after which he pledged to work for the Lord. It was not long before he penned his first gospel blues, "If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me," which was inspired by the death of a friend.