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Thomas A. Dorsey, 93; Pianist Created Gospel Music


Thomas A. Dorsey, the bawdyhouse pianist who melded brash blues and sensitive spirituals into an often complex rhythmic mix he christened "gospel," has died.

His daughter, Doris Dorsey, said from Chicago that her father was 93 when he died Saturday at his home in that city where jazz traveled by boat up the Mississippi River more than 100 years ago.

Torn by a strict religious upbringing but moved by the melancholy slave songs of his forebears, Dorsey--then a young pianist performing in saloons and bordellos--brought both musical traditions together.

The result was the hand-clapping, soul-slapping, foot-stomping vibrant joy that echoes today throughout black churches and often spills into world concert halls.

Dorsey's best-known gospel song, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," was a favorite of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The song was made famous by Mahalia Jackson, who once toured with Dorsey. It has been translated into more than 50 languages.

The song was prompted by a tragedy early in Dorsey's life. In 1931, his first wife died during childbirth and the infant died a day later.

Dorsey was known as Georgia Tom when he published his first gospel hit, "If You See My Saviour," in 1926. He had been an accompanist for blues singer Ma Rainey but left her and popular music soon after hearing a chorus sing a spiritual at the National Baptist Convention in Chicago.

He came to call his pre-conversion years his "sinful days."

Dorsey was born in 1899 in Villa Rica, Ga., near Atlanta, the son of a revivalist preacher.

He left for Chicago where he studied at the Chicago College of Composition and Arranging. One of his compositions was "Riverside Blues," recorded by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in 1923.

He hit the top of the blues charts with "It's Tight Like That," a suggestive song that sold over 7 million copies.

In the early 1930s--after his conversion to gospel--Dorsey spread his music across the land. The first female gospel quartet and first gospel chorus was founded in 1931. In 1932 gospel became the music of choice at Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church, the first National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses was held, and the first gospel publishing company, Dorsey House, was founded. Dorsey began coaching and teaching nearly all of the first-generation gospel singers--Robert Martin, Clara Ward, Sallie Martin and Miss Jackson.

Dorsey also provided gospel with some early classics--"When I've Done My Best," "Hide Me in Thy Bosom," "Search Me, Lord," and "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray."

At his death he had written hundreds of blues songs and more than 1,000 gospel pieces.

He remembered each of them fondly, even those from his "sinful days."

"I'm not ashamed of my blues," he told the Nation in 1991. "It's all the same talent, a beat is a beat whatever it is."

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