Biographers of Georgia Tom Dorsey like to make comments such as "his life was a living testimony of the power of God." But there was also the trashy side to the man, expressed best in song titles such as "Terrible Operation Blues" and "Pig Meat Blues." When everything is balanced out, however, it has to be admitted that this is a case where an African-American performer chose the church over the honky tonk. In gospel music, his work as a composer and arranger is acknowledged to be so significant that he is often referred to as the father of gospel music. In country blues, he is just one of the gang, although the he kept great company with the likes of Ma Rainey and Tampa Red.
Dorsey grew up in Atlanta, raised by a Baptist minister and encouraged mightily in musical aptitude that revealed itself strongly when Dorsey was still an infant. He reportedly drank in music as if he was hooked up to a milking machine, checking out circus music, blues, jazz, vaudeville, hymns, and even hillbilly songs. All these styles influenced the music he created during his career, although when it comes to jazz, the matter is sometimes exaggerated by blunderers who assume a relation to famed big band brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Anyway, blues and ragtime were the main interests of the Atlanta Dorsey when, as a teenager, he began gigging behind the simple stage name of Georgia Tom.
In 1918 he moved to Chicago, picking up action with area jazzmen, starting up his own Wildcats Jazz Band, and going on tour with the classic female blues empress Ma Rainey. Yet hustling song sheets became his main way of earning money simply because these live gigs were so poorly compensated. By 1932, Dorsey became more and more associated with the music of the church, starting up one of the first gospel choirs, and initiating the first publishing firm exclusively devoted to the compositions of black gospel artists. Dorsey could place himself high on the list of such performers, composing some of the most familiar gospel songs such as the valuable "Precious Lord," the serene "Peace in the Valley," the sincere "I Don't Know Why," and the probing "Search Me Lord." His involvement in the Chicago gospel scene included pushing forward the important careers of singers Mahalia Jackson and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith. Dorsey lived to the ripe age of 93. ~ Eugene Chadbourne