Georgia Tom: Father of Gospel

A brief bow of the head to honor Thomas A. Dorsey, a.k.a. Georgia Tom (1899-1993), not to be confused with the later big band leader Tommy Dorsey. This Dorsey was a minister’s son, who grew up on a cotton farm outside Atlanta. As a child he attended became in black vaudeville, first as an audience member, then as a concessionaire at a local theatre. Inspired by the musicians in the shows, he taught himself piano and organ, and soon was performing in shows himself, as well as at local saloons, barrelhouses, and brothels (not unusual at the time). In 1919 he moved to Chicago. His early music was within the blues and jazz styles, and he backed famous performers such as Ma Rainey and Tampa Red. He also composed his own original songs. In the late ’20s and early ’30 he went deeper into his religious roots, and began developing music that incorporated the sounds of the old slave spirituals he’d grown up on. Two of his best known gospel songs were “Peace in the Valley” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, both popularized by Mahalia Jackson. For 50 years he was the musical director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, a platform from which, ultimately, he influenced and inspired millions of people, including people like Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, and Martin Luther King.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

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