When the annual Thomas A Dorsey Birthplace Festival begins next weekend, there will be two more reasons to celebrate “the father of black gospel music”: a planned museum downtown and a resolution in his honor by the state House of Representatives.
The Festival opens Friday, June 23, with a jazz concert at The Mill amphitheater, 106 Temple St. It will continue on Saturday with a gospel singing at Mount Prospect Baptist Church, 133 Thomas Dorsey Drive, and conclude with a blues concert at The Mill and a fireworks show after dark. All the events are free and open to the public.
This year marks the 22nd anniversary of the Dorsey Festival, which honors the life and musical career of Thomas A. Dorsey, who was born in Villa Rica in 1899 and became a revered gospel composer.
The city has honored Dorsey in the past with a historical marker, and naming a street and the stage at The Mill after him. This year, the state Legislature endorsed a resolution in his honor.
State Rep. J. Collins, R-Villa Rica, presented the resolution to the city council on June 6. Adopted by the House of Representatives in March, the lawmakers praised Dorsey’s career, which included publishing more than 400 jazz and blues songs, and establishing the first black gospel music publishing company.
Further honors may be on the way. At the same city council meeting, a proposed Thomas Dorsey museum was unveiled that would be part of a new hotel and conference center being planned for downtown. The 30,000 square-foot museum is only on the drawing board just now, and no plan is in place to fund the $10 million to $12 million project, but if completed, the Dorsey museum could be a major tourist draw to the city.
The Festival is already a major attraction for downtown. It was founded in 1993, shortly after Dorsey’s death, by a group of people that included Villa Rica Council member Shirley Marchman.
The 7 p.m. jazz event that will kick off this year’s celebration on June 23 will include the Kerwin L. Felix Band of Marietta, and the Justin Varnes Jazz Quartet of Atlanta.
At 3 p.m. Saturday, gospel singers including Tim Rogers and The Fellas will perform at Mt. Prospect church.
At 6:30 p.m. the same day, June 24, the Live Exchange Party Band will present the blues show at The Mill.
There will be barbeque at the site, along with other vendors. The festival will conclude with a fireworks show after dark. Sunset on June 24 will occur at 8:54 p.m.
Thomas Dorsey was born in Villa Rica on July 1, 1899. At Mt. Prospect Baptist Church, he was exposed to shape-note singing, and at home he learned to play a used pump organ, experiences that he said “sprang” his career.
According to the Mt. Prospect website, his family moved to Atlanta when he was about nine years old, and it was there that the young man heard blues singers in theaters, and learned to play blues piano. He moved to Chicago in at around the time of World War I, where he worked in a factory and formed a band. He next enrolled in a music school and took formal lessons in composition and arranging.
By the 1920s, he was a jazz performer of some renown, with the stage name of “Georgia Tom.” But along with the jazz tunes that he composed, he wrote gospel songs. He became so known with a particular style of gospel that they became known as “dorseys.”
In 1931, he joined a friend, the singing evangelist Theodore Frye, to sing in what was considered the first gospel choir. He also established a music studio and helped form the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
In August 1932, his wife, Nettie, died giving birth to a son, who died the next day. In his grief, the website says, Dorsey sat down at a piano and began playing a tune he had never before heard, while the lyrics also came into his head. The resulting song, “Take My Hand Precious Lord,” has since became the song with which he is now most closely associated.
Since then, “Take My Hand” has been translated into 32 languages, and has been sung by such artists as Aretha Franklin. In 1968, Dorsey’s friend Mahalia Jackson sang the song at the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr.
Another song by Dorsey, “Peace in the Valley,” sold millions of records in 1957, when Elvis Presley sang it.