CHICAGO -- Thomas A. Dorsey, 93, who was known as the father of gospel music for his merging of religious music with the blues, died Jan. 23 at his home here. He had Alzheimer's disease.
He blended blues, ragtime and church songs into what he called gospel music. He wrote such gospel classics as "Peace in the Valley" and "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."
Mr. Dorsey was a successful blues musician at an early age and a pioneer in black music publishing. But his invention of gospel in the early 1920s "went on to have a tremendous influence, not only in black churches but in all churches," entertainment lawyer J.B. Ross said Sunday.
Mr. Dorsey wrote more than 2,000 blues songs, including the 1928 hit, "It's Tight Like That," which sold more than 7 million copies.
But his main love was gospel, and he contributed about 1,000 songs to the genre he created.
He began experimenting with gospel to reconcile an inner conflict over his religious upbringing and his early love of the blues, according to biographer Michael Harris, a professor of religion and African American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Mr. Dorsey was born in Villa Rica, Ga., one of five children of a Baptist preacher and his wife. He began playing the piano and the blues professionally by age 12, sometimes working in bordellos, to help support the family.
Eventually he took the stage name "Georgia Tom" and toured with singer Ma Rainey. He moved north to attend Chicago Music College, and it was in Chicago, he said, that he coined the phrase "gospel songs" after hearing a group singing one Sunday morning.
In 1926, Dorsey composed his first gospel hit, "If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me."
The music wasn't immediately accepted by the church, however, and Mr. Dorsey once joked that he had been "thrown out of some of the best churches" for fusing the secular and the sacred.
But by 1968 things had definitely changed, and that year his greatest hit, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," was sung at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral. It had been one of the civil rights leader's favorite songs. Mr. Dorsey wrote it in 1931, after his first wife died during childbirth and the baby died a day later.
In 1932 the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago hired him to direct its choir. That same year, he filled the 3,000-seat church for the first Gospel Singer Convention, and the organization has endured as the nation's foremost gospel music group.
Mr. Dorsey's work reached a wider audience in 1983 through the documentary film, "Say Amen, Somebody," and in 1992, he was honored with the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences National Trustees Award.
His explanation for gospel remained simple: "Down through the ages, the gospel was good news."
Survivors include his second wife, Katherine, of Chicago, two children and four grandchildren.