Ralph Willis (1910 – June 11, 1957) was an
American Piedmont and country blues singer, guitarist and songwriter. Some
of his Savoy records were released under pseudonyms, such as Alabama
Slim, Washboard Pete and Sleepy Joe.
Thomas Andrew Dorsey (July 1, 1899, Villa Rica, Georgia – January 23, 1993,
Chicago) was known as "the father of black gospel music" and was at one time
so closely associated with the field that songs written in the new style
were sometimes known as "dorseys." Earlier in his life he was a leading
blues pianist known as Georgia Tom.
As formulated by Dorsey, gospel music combines Christian praise with the
rhythms of jazz and the blues. His conception also deviates from what had
been, to that time, standard hymnal practice by referring explicitly to the
self, and the self's relation to faith and God, rather than the individual
subsumed into the group via belief.
Dorsey was the music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago from 1932
until the late 1970s. His best known composition, "Take My Hand, Precious
Lord", was performed by Mahalia Jackson and was a favorite of the Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr., and "Peace in the Valley", which was a hit for Red
Foley in 1951 and has been performed by dozens of other artists, including
Queen of Gospel Albertina Walker, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
In 2002, the Library of Congress honored his album Precious Lord: New
Recordings of the Great Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey (1973), by adding it to
the United States National Recording Registry.
Dorsey's father was a minister and his mother a piano teacher. He learned to
play blues piano as a young man. After studying music formally in Chicago,
he became an agent for Paramount Records. He put together a band for Ma
Rainey called the "Wild Cats Jazz Band" in 1924.
He started out playing at rent parties with the names Barrelhouse Tom and
Texas Tommy, but he was most famous as Georgia Tom. As Georgia Tom, he
teamed up with Tampa Red (Hudson Whittaker) with whom he recorded the
raunchy 1928 hit record "Tight Like That", a sensation, selling seven
million copies. In all, he is credited with more than 400 blues and jazz
Dorsey began recording gospel music alongside blues in the mid 1920s. This
led to his performing at the National Baptist Convention in 1930, and
becoming the bandleader of two churches in the early 1930s.
His first wife, Nettie, who had been Rainey's wardrobe mistress, died in
childbirth in 1932. Two days later the child, a son, also died. In his
grief, he wrote his most famous song, one of the most famous of all gospel
songs, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand".
Unhappy with the treatment received at the hands of established publishers,
Dorsey opened the first black gospel music publishing company, Dorsey House
of Music. He also founded his own gospel choir and was a founder and first
president of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
His influence was not limited to African American music, as white musicians
also followed his lead. "Precious Lord" has been recorded by Albertina
Walker, Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson,
Aretha Franklin, Clara Ward, Dorothy Norwood, Jim Reeves,
Roy Rogers, and Tennessee Ernie Ford, among
hundreds of others. It was a favorite gospel song of the Rev. Martin Luther
King, Jr.; and was sung at the rally the night before his assassination,
and, per his request, at his funeral by Mahalia Jackson. It was also a
favorite of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who requested it to be sung at his
funeral. Dorsey was also a great influence on other Chicago-based gospel
artists such as Albertina Walker and The Caravans and Little Joey McClork.
Dorsey wrote "Peace in the Valley" for Mahalia Jackson in 1937, which also
became a gospel standard. He was the first African American elected to the
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and also the first in the Gospel Music
Association's Living Hall of Fame. In 2007, he was inducted as a charter
member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana. His papers
are preserved at Fisk University, along with those of
W.C. Handy, George Gershwin, and the Fisk
Dorsey's works have proliferated beyond performance, into the hymnals of
virtually all American churches and of English-speaking churches worldwide.
Thomas was a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
He died in Chicago, Illinois and was interred there in the Oak Woods
Cemetery.Willis was born near Birmingham, Alabama. In the late 1930s, Willis
moved to North Carolina and started to play along with musicians who were
familiar with Blind Boy Fuller.
Willis recorded his debut material in 1944, and continued until 1953,
issuing fifty tracks via several record labels including Savoy, Signature,
20th Century, Abbey, Jubilee, Prestige, Par, and King Records.
Similar to Gabriel Brown, Alec Seward and
Brownie McGhee, Willis relocated
to New York. Willis originally recorded singly, but record label demands saw
him used more frequently with accompaniment. Judson Coleman joined Willis on
his 20th Century recordings, and in 1949, McGhee was employed. His latter
recordings utilised both McGhee and Sonny Terry.
Willis employed an array of musical styles from slow blues to uptempo
country dance tracks. However he spurned the growing popularity of
folk-blues and R&B. He was musically conscious of
Blind Lemon Jefferson and Luke
Jordan, but later recordings saw his guitar style leaning towards the
booming resonance of Lightnin' Hopkins.