Thomas A. Dorsey and Sallie Martin started performing gospel music together in 1932. Almost half a century later, they're still singing.
Yesterday at Howard University the two gospel pioneers reminisced about their careers and served up some old-time music at a workshop sponsored by the university's Center for Ethnic Music.
Dorsey, called the father of gospel music and composer of such religious classics as "Peace in the Valley" and "Standing Here Wondering," said he wouldn't have written his biggest hit, "Precious Lord," without personal tragedy.
In 1932, his first wife died in childbirth while he was in St. Louis attending a church convention. Before he could return to his Chicago home, the baby died.
"I almost lost my faith," he said. "I walked the street. But one night I started rambling over a piano and the melody and lyrics came to me.
"I couldn't have written 'Precious Lord' without paying a price."
The song has since been translated into 18 languages.
"I went to the Holy Land (Jerusalem) once and they were singing 'Precious Lord' there," he said in an interview several years ago.
At 80, Dorsey is wizened and slow of step. But he didn't let that stop him from bursting into song on "If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me," his first gospel composition, which he wrote in 1926 on the occasion of a young man's death.
Dorsey and Martin met when she moved to Chicago in 1932. Together they formed the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, a training ground for singers.
However, they made their biggest national impact by performing in big cities and small towns. Dorsey played piano and Martin sang his songs. And afterward they sold his sheet music. That's how Dorsey became a famous songwriter.
Martin was introduced to the students as the first national gospel singer because of ther frequent tours. "What singers influenced you?" asked a serious female graduate student.
Known as a woman who doesn't bite her tongue, Martin shot back: "My style is my style. I sing it as I feel it."
In the early '40s, Martin had a group that included a young woman named Ruth Jones, who later changed her name to Dinah Washington and became famous as a pop singer.
"I looked up and Lionel Hampton was trying to snap her up for his band," said Martin, sternly critical of secular music. "I had to send her home to her mother. She was too fast out there on the road."
The raspy-voiced Martin said God had helped her achieve all her goals: to see Paris and London, to visit a foreign mission home in Africa and own her own home.
"I'm still talking and patting my foot," she snapped.