The songwriter and performer may have moved out before hitting the age of ten, but this town and this region still fondly claim “the father of black gospel music” all these years later.
Dorsey was a gospel music pioneer from the 1920s through the 1980s. His influence was such that the type of songs he popularized were known simply as “Dorseys” for a time.
Aside from a spectacular musical career, Dorsey enjoyed a long life. He was born in 1899 and lived until Jan. 23, 1993. Now, 20 years after his death, Villa Rica’s star on the musical map is part of a new Smithsonian exhibit that will land in nearby Bremen in February and March.
The New Harmonies Traveling Smithsonian Exhibit has made its way through the state of Georgia, beginning in 2012. The highlight of the exhibit is Georiga’s musical traditions. University of West Georgia History Professor Dr. Keith Hebert is coordinating the Bremen leg of the tour, and said Dorsey’s legacy is undeniable.
“Dorsey is a pivotal figure in the history of gospel music,” said Hebert. “His legacy carries on locally through the members of Mt. Prospect Baptist Church. Their choir is unique in the way their perform and their music. A lot of that’s a holdover from the days of Thomas Dorsey.”
Hebert said a lot of modern artists such as Kirk Franklin inherited their style of music from the man.
Dorsey was the son of a pastor and attended Mt. Prospect Baptist Church as a child, listening to the swaying gospel choirs that would influence his later music. He later built a career in Atlanta, Kansas City and especially Chicago. Dorsey used the moniker “Georgia Tom” in his early days and churned out a series of pop hits.
A tune recorded with Tampa Red titled “Tight Like That” sold a million copies and many of his pieces were later covered by Elvis. Photos from this era depict a slick-dressed man with a cigarette and style.
It was tragedy that would forever mark his life and change his music. Dorsey’s first wife died during childbirth in 1932, and a few days later the child also perished. Grieving this tragedy, he wrote one of his most famous pieces, “Precious Lord, Take my Hand.”
“The main story of Dorsey is that he had two different careers,” said Hebert. “When he was younger he was part of a traveling vaudeville show. He had a big conversion when his wife and son died, and that led him to this major conversion in his life. It’s pretty incredible.”
“Precious Lord, Take my Hand” was a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr. and was performed at his funeral. It and other Dorsey pieces have been covered by artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Randy Travis, and his music can be found in church hymnals the world over.
Shirley Marchman is a Villa Rica city council member who sings in both the Mr. Prospect Baptist Church Choir and the Thomas Dorsey Birthplace Choir. She says his influence on the city cannot be forgotten.
“Mt. Prospect was his boyhood church,” said Marchman. “We’ve been holding a festival here in his honor for 18 years to celebrate him.”
Today, Dorsey’s name and image can still be found throughout Villa Rica. There is Thomas Dorsey Drive and a large mural downtown that includes him. The Thomas Dorsey festival is held here each summer near his birthday.
The Smithsonian exhibit in Bremen will be located at the Warren P. Sewell Library and will run from Feb. 9 to March 23. Monday and Wednesday the exhibit will open from 10 - 5: 30 p.m.. Tuesday and Thursday it will operate from noon - 7 p.m., Friday it opens from noon to 5: 30 p.m. and Saturday from 10 - 3 p.m. More information on the exhibit can be found at GeorgiaHumanities.org/newharmonies.
The Thomas Dorsey Birthplace Choir will perform at 6 p.m. on Feb. 16 at Mt. Prospect Baptist Church, 133 Thomas Dorsey Drive in Villa Rica.