He sat in the church's pulpit, a lean, gaunt man with craggy features listening to the testimonies of the faithful and the songs of the joyous. At times, this gospel giant whose innovations first rocked the religious world 50 years ago seemed distant. At times, he was a gospel maestro, waving his arms in intricate patterns to the beat and the messages of church choirs singing tribute to a man the world calls "the Father of Gospel."
Thomas A. Dorsey, 83, came to Washington last week to record his last gospel album, called "One More Time Together," at Bible Way Temple Worldwide Inc. in Northwest. During his stay here, Dorsey, who has written more than 800 gospel songs including "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," "The Old Ship of Zion," and "There Will Be Peace in the Valley for Me," met a storm of praise from churchgoers, city officials and President Ronald Reagan.
About 400 people attended Friday night's taping at Bible Way to catch a glimpse of music history and to listen to Dorsey's still-melodious tenor sing songs so familiar that in the moments of hushed silence he created a calming intimacy.
At an age when many performers are ready to retire, Dorsey, who is credited with founding gospel music and with influencing such singers as Dinah Washington, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin and many more, continues to perform.
"Within us and without us we have the very thing it takes to make it work," Dorsey had said earlier that day in an interview. "We're always trying to help other singers come up and that makes me feel good. It's these boys and girls singing tonight, they're the show. They are the future gospel music."
His path to gospel music was somewhat predictable. The son of a Baptist preacher in Villa Richa, Ga., Dorsey displeased his father when he took a liking to early jazz and blues hymns.
According to the gospel history book, "The Gospel Sound," Dorsey was considered a child prodigy who mastered several instruments in the hopes of making it big in ragtime. He was influenced by the music of Bessie Smith in 1912 and joined the Ma Rainey band a few years later and became her musical director. During the '20s, Dorsey, then known as "Georgia Tom" and "Barrel House Tom," wrote blues songs prolifically. One of them, "It's Tight Like That," is still heard today.
Dorsey was reportedly "saved" at a Baptist convention in 1921 after hearing the religious song, "I Do, Don't You?" He's been singing gospel ever since.
His first published song, "If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me," helped pave the way for gospel's acceptance in churches. He held workshops and conventions with other gospel greats including Sallie Martin and Theodore R. Frye. Mahalia Jackson reportedly called him "our Irving Berlin."
What he did for oldtime spirituals and hymnals was to add some of the emotional blues and jazz elements he learned with the Rainey band and others. His earlier concerts with Sallie Martin, Roberta Martin and later Mahalia Jackson have become gospel legends.
It was the living legend that many of the faithful came to hear last week. One of them, Francis Moore, who arrived early and waited for hours just to hear Dorsey, said he was a longtime admirer. "When I was a young man in the choir, we would always love to sing his songs."
D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, who honored Dorsey and his accomplishments in statements in the Congressional Record, said that Dorsey has enriched the lives of many people. "Just minutes before Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, he pleaded with Ben Branch to 'Play me Thomas Dorsey's beautiful song, "Precious Lord," ' " Fauntroy said.
There were many firsts in Dorsey's life. Along with Frye, he formed the first Gospel Choir at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago in 1930-31. Dorsey, Frye, Magnolia Lewis Butts and Martin later formed the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses Inc.
In 1979, Dorsey was the first black elected to the Nashville Songwriters Association's International Hall of Fame. He was still performing in 1980, when he recorded the album, "The Maestro Sings his Masterpieces." Also that year, during its Jubilee Celebration, Operation Push awarded him its Par Excellence Award. In 1981, Dorsey was elected to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and this year he became the first black elected to the Gospel Music Association's Living Hall of Fame.
It was Clayton Hannah, an educator and historian, who brought Dorsey out of retirement. "For over 20 years, he has been dormant, sitting at home with all this genius wrapped up in his head and nobody bothered to channel him," said Hannah, who has become Dorsey's manager. "It's been like a 'new life' for him," said Hannah, who along with pianist Gregory Cooper make up the Dorsey Team that performs together on concert tours, primarily at colleges and universities all over the country.
Crippled by a fall last year, Dorsey walks with the aid of a walker. He smiled at the Bible Way audience as he was led onto the stage, blew a kiss and stiffly waved his hand as they applauded him.
Then the tributes began. The Morgan State University Choir, which honored him last year at a fund-raiser, sang powerful renditions of "When All God's Children Get Together" and "Let the Redeemed of the Lord Say So." Then the Maryland Suburban Mass Choir, known for its syncopated rhythms, honored him in song. Both groups provided the background vocals for Dorsey's taping session at the church.
When it was his time to sing, Dorsey, frail and weak, leaned forward on the podium. As he began to sing his 1937 song, "My Desire," he starting in low, rasping tones, closing his eyes and tilting his head from side to side. But as the song progressed, Dorsey, still the master, built a crescendo in steady, clear notes. "Amen!" shouted people in the audience. Many clapped their hands. When he finished a series of songs, they gave him a standing ovation. Clearly exhausted, Dorsey smiled faintly and waved back.
"I just do the best I can and sing whatever I like," he said before the performance. "I played all over the country and all over Europe and if people didn't like it," Dorsey chuckled, "they could hand it back."