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The Traditional Delta and Country Blues

Georgia Tom Dorsey

Thomas Andrew Dorsey, b. July 1, 1899 in Villa Rica, GA, d. January 23, 1993 in Chicago, IL. Often known as the founder of gospel music. Born into a religious family, Dorsey nevertheless shunned sacred music for many years, although it is in that idiom that he was to make the biggest impact. He learned to play piano in his youth, and when he settled in Chicago in 1916 he began to carve out a career for himself on the blues scene there. In the early 20s, he toured as a musician in the Ma Rainey show. Between 1928 and 1932 he recorded extensively as a blues artist under his pseudonym Georgia Tom, as partner to Tampa Red, as part of groups such as the Hokum Boys, and as accompanist to many artists, from obscure figures such as Auntie Mary Bradford and Stovepipe Johnson to big names such as ‘Big’ Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie and Victoria Spivey. Despite the comparative brevity of this period of his career, he was very influential for the quality and variety of his piano accompaniments, and also for one of his best-known records, with Tampa Red, ‘It’s Tight Like That’, a smutty, double-meaning song that was enormously popular and led to a vast number of cover versions, copies and variants.

In 1930, Dorsey began to compose and publish religious songs, and two years later, at the height of his success as a blues musician, he renounced this idiom and moved to gospel music, with which he was to stay for the rest of his long career. He joined singer Sallie Martin, and developed a new career with the Gospel Choral Union. His successful blues recording career led him straight into recording gospel songs, dropping the pseudonym Georgia Tom in favour of his own full name. One of his biggest successes, however, has been as a songwriter, and it was when the Heavenly Gospel Singers recorded his song ‘Precious Lord’ that he really began to make his name in this respect; the song has become one of the best known, and most prolifically recorded, of all black gospel songs. Dorsey remained active into a remarkably old age, appearing in a television film as late as the 80s, still preaching and singing.