Raunchy blues pianist who became the Father of Gospel
hard to believe that America’s Father of Black Gospel Music, Thomas A. Dorsey,
was once a piano player in a raunchy blues outfit; but, then, isn’t that the unpredictability of
pursuing a career in music?
to be confused with the white World War Two band leader, Tommy Dorsey, Thomas
A. Dorsey was the black composer who not only coined the term ‘gospel music’ in
the 1930s, but also finally persuaded the Baptist Church to accept what they previously
considered “The Devil’s Music”. On top of that, he wrote over 400 blues and religious songs.
|Georgia Thomas A. Dorsey: hip young dude.|
actually mentioned Thomas in last week’s post which looked at the birth of resonator
guitars, but during that time he was working with Tampa Red as Georgia Tom.
(As a session player in those days, his other pseudonyms included Barrelhouse Tom and Texas Tommy.)
1920s, Georgia Tom and Tampa Red performed as The Hokum Boys, playing a form of
comic blues packed with Benny Hill-style sexual innuendo called hokum. Their
biggest hit was, ‘It’s Tight Like That’, a link to which features in the
previous post. Some sources say the 1928 track sold seven million records. It was
certainly one of the biggest sellers of the 1920s.
Tom, as his name suggests, was born Thomas Dorsey in far west Georgia in 1899, moving to
Atlanta in 1908. There, he left school aged 11 to play piano in a vaudeville
theatre, no doubt taught by his mother, a respected church organist. Then, aged
17, Tom left his home in Georgia, as the song goes, for Chicago.
1924, at the height of what people called the hometown or moaning blues period, Tom was
playing in Ma Rainey’s Wild Cats band, alongside Tampa Red.
Red recorded over 60 raunchy blues, most written by Tom, as The Hokum Boys. Produced
in Chicago by Lester Melrose, Tom and Red were the original Hokum Boys, not to be confused
with later versions which included Big Bill Broonzy, Scrapper Blackwell and
Leroy Carr amongst others.
even while Tom was pumping out hokum, he was already following a deeply
religious path, writing his first fusion of religious music and blues as early
as 1922. He tried to get the black churches interested in this new style of
music but African-American church leaders wanted no truck with the devil’s
music in those days and as Dorsey himself once said, “I’ve been thrown out of
some of the best churches in America.”
|Thomas A. Dorsey: church elder.|
a couple of nervous breakdowns, Tom Dorsey suffered the grief of having his
wife and baby die during childbirth. After this he changed his upbeat gospel
blues style to the grief of moaning blues combined with words of religious
comfort. Dorsey’s ‘Peace in the Valley’, for Mahalia Jackson
in 1937 is the most recorded gospel song of all time while ‘Precious Lord’ has been covered by
everyone from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley.
the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz wrote in Georgia Music Magazine in 2008:
Five Blind Boys and countless others would never have sung with the feeling and
emotion his gospel blues allowed them to do.
singers as Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, James Brown and Al Green (all
of whom came from the church) would never have found their voices and
styles that turned music around.”
How Blues Evolved in the UK is on the following link:
In the USA, please follow this link: