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Preaching the Gospel of Thomas A. Dorsey

March 25, 1994|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Much has been written over the years about the great gospel singers, but little about the foremost gospel songwriters--including Thomas A. Dorsey, who died last year at age 93.

When most people hear that name, they probably think of Tommy Dorsey, the popular bandleader of the '30s and '40s. But Thomas A. Dorsey was a songwriter whose gospel tunes, including "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and "(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley," have been recorded by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley.

Nineteen of his compositions are saluted in "Precious Lord: Recordings of the Great Gospel Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey," which has been released in CD by Columbia/Legacy's Gospel Spirit label.

In the liner notes, Tony Heilbut describes Dorsey as gospel's answer to W.C. Handy and says he was "perhaps more original than the father of the blues, certainly more prolific." By a conservative estimate, he says, Dorsey wrote one out of four modern gospel standards.

Dorsey, who was born in Villa Rica, Ga., in 1899, grew up around gospel music (his father was a Baptist minister), but he moved to Chicago in his teens and joined the blues scene. He toured as a pianist with Ma Rainey and recorded, under the pseudonym Georgia Tom, with Tampa Red.

By his early 30s, however, he had turned his back on blues and concentrated on religious songs. One of the reasons for the wide-spread appeal of his music was that it wed gospel themes to country and blues musical sensibilities. The result was that Dorsey's songs became as popular in white churches as in black churches in the '40s and '50s in the segregated South.

On some of the album's tracks--especially R.H. Harris' version of "Peace in the Valley"--you can hear early traces of modern soul music. Among the other artists featured on the collection: the Dixie Hummingbirds, Marion Williams and Bessie Griffin.

But it is Dorsey's voice itself that opens the album--a recollection of the circumstances that led to perhaps his most celebrated song, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."

Dorsey was attending a gospel event in St. Louis in 1932 when he learned that his wife had died during childbirth in Chicago. Looking for comfort after returning home, he sat at a piano and the words of the song simply dropped into place:

"Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on

Let me stand."

Other entries in the Gospel Spirit series include the two-disc "The Gospel Sound," a survey of black gospel with artists ranging from Mahalia Jackson to the Golden Gate Quartet, as well as single-disc packages by such artists as Johnny Cash, the Staple Singers and Marion Williams.

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