The 80th Anniversary of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”

by M-Gillies

Eighty years ago Thomas Dorsey wrote "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" which has become one of the most requested life celebration songs of all time.

He’s written over 400 compositions, his songs have been performed by Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson and Jim Reeves. He’s been considered a leading blues pianist and dubbed The Godfather of Gospel Music, but perhaps his most famed composition is his 1956 melody Take My Hand, Precious Lord, which will now be celebrating its 80th anniversary on March 27, 2013.

From an early age, Thomas A. Dorsey loved music. Born the son of a Baptist preacher with his mother a church organist, Dorsey found himself quickly torn between the sacred and the secular. At the age of eleven, he left school to take a job at a local Vaudeville theatre where he performed on the piano. But after six years, Dorsey soon found a new calling as he joined the Great Migration north, leaving behind his southern roots to try his hand at success in Chicago.

Almost immediately, the young musician quickly found success as he became known as the whispering piano player on account that pianists performing at after-hours parties had to possess a skill of playing quietly enough to avoid drawing police attention.

With strong musical abilities quickly gaining notoriety, Dorsey’s piano style was limited, and in order to increase his chances for employment, he enrolled himself into the Chicago College of Composition and Arranging. But for all his early success, Dorsey’s hectic and unhealthy schedule of performing during the day and evening while attending classes soon led to a nervous breakdown, which saw his mother travel to Chicago to bring him back to Atlanta.

In 1921, Dorsey returned to Chicago to attend the National Baptists Convention at the encouragement of his uncle. It was there, where he heard the singing of W. M. Nix which left an immense impression upon the skillful musician.

“My inner-being was thrilled. My soul was a deluge of divine rapture; my emotions were aroused; my heart was inspired to become a great singer and worker in the Kingdom of the Lord – and impress people just as this great singer did that Sunday morning,” Dorsey had said.

Immediately, Dorsey went to work composing sacred songs and taking a job as director of music at New Hope Baptist Church in Chicago’s South Side. But his conversion was fleeting and he soon found himself performing with the Whispering Syncopators during a period when the popularity of blues was growing in New York and Chicago.

By 1924, Dorsey made his debut as Georgia Tom with The Mother of Blues, Ma Rainey, at the Grand Theater. For the next year, he would tour with Rainey, but the pressures of touring where beginning to overwhelm him, quickly leading to his second breakdown.

After pledging to compose gospel blues, Dorsey wrote his first gospel music after the death of a friend entitled, If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me. But Dorsey soon learned that infusing blues in the traditional arrangement of gospel music was shocking to many and once more found himself writing and performing secular blues. By 1928,  he teamed with Tampa Red with whom he recorded his first hit record, Tight Like That – a sensation that went on to sell seven million copies.

Things soon changed for Dorsey in 1931 after he endured the death of both his wife and newborn son during childbirth. The experience was a monumental tragedy that devastated him, but out of the despair, he wrote the song for which he would become forever associated with – one which would go on to be translated into 50 languages and recorded by both successful gospel and secular musicians.

The song was called Take My Hand, Precious Lord and its popularity only grew. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. adored the song so much, he would invite gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to perform it during rallies to inspire crowds. After he was shot on March 29, 1968, King’s final words to musician Ben Branch, who had been scheduled to perform that night, were, “Ben, make sure you play Take My Hand, Precious Lord in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” As per his request, Mahalia Jackson performed the song at his funeral.

Since that day, Take My Hand, Precious Lord has been used in numerous funeral ceremonies, such as the state funeral of President Lyndon Johnson in 1973, performed by opera singer Leontyne Price, as well as performed by Aretha Franklin at the 1972 funeral for Mahalia Jackson.

Meanwhile, Dorsey’s career continued to flourish until the 50s. Though relatively obscure throughout the later part of his career, his songs continued to be performed all over the world by many musicians who held him amongst the most revered figures in spiritual music, even after his death on January 23, 1993.

As Dorsey once said, “I had hope, faith, courage, aspiration and most of all, determination to accomplish something in life… I resolved to make a mark for myself.”

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