Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993)—not to be mistaken with the big band leader Tommy Dorsey—is often referred to as the “father of gospel music.” The son of a minister and a piano teacher, he started his career as a blues pianist in Chicago, working with local jazz groups. He eventually formed his own group, The Wildcats Jazz Band, which played regularly with the great Ma Rainey. During this same time, he also began recording. The way in which he combined blues and jazz rhythms with traditional hymns and spiritual songs resulted in a new “gospel” style. Some historians credit Dorsey with creating the term “gospel music.”
In 1932, Dorsey experienced a life-changing event that resulted in the creation of one of his most popular compositions. While on the road performing, he received a message asking him to come home immediately, as his wife Nettie, pregnant with their first child, had died. Two days later, his newborn son also died. Filled with grief, he penned the lyric “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand.” (He can be seen telling the story in the documentary Say Amen, Somebody.) This would go on to be one of his most famous compositions, along with the gospel standard “Peace in the Valley,” which was written for Mahalia Jackson. After writing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” Dorsey devoted himself almost exclusively to the writing and performing of gospel music.
In addition to writing over 400 songs, Dorsey started a publishing company, Dorsey House of Music, and was a founder and president of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. He died in 1993 at the age of 93.