Tommy Dorsey, Thomas A. Dorsey: two different great musicians

Tommy Dorsey and Bette Davis

Tommy Dorsey and Bette Davis

Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956) had a rare blend of musical ability and business sense that enabled him to lead one of the most successful dance bands of his era. Famously hard to get along with, he started out with his brother Jimmy, broke with him, and then reconciled later in his life. Tommy Dorsey’s sumptuous cantabile on the trombone is one of the most recognizable sounds of the swing era. He was white, by the way.

Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) is considered the father of (black) gospel music. He started his musical career as a blues and jazz band leader, much like Tommy Dorsey did. His life took a major turn as he listened to a hymn at a Baptist convention. He became a committed Christian and turned from secular music to writing and performing gospel hymns.

Thomas A Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson

Thomas A Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson

His wife died in child birth while he was away on tour, and the child died soon afterward. Their deaths shook Dorsey’s faith to the core, but eventually he regained his faith and peace with God. At that time he composed one of his best-loved hymns, “Precious Lord.” In 1987, he published his account of that crisis in Guideposts. That account has deservedly circulated around the Internet for more than a decade now. Unfortunately, it is almost invariably attributed to Tommy Dorsey, the trombonist.

It’s a great and inspirational story, so here it is again, giving credit where credit is due. This beautiful illustration of how God speaks to and comforts his people was written by gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey. A video of him leading the song follows.

Back in 1932, I was a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie, and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago ‘s south side.  One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting.

I didn’t want to go; Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child, but a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. I kissed Nettie goodbye, clattered downstairs to our Model A and, in a fresh Lake Michigan breeze, chugged out of Chicago on Route 66.

However, outside the city, I discovered that in my anxiety at leaving, I had forgotten my music case.  I wheeled around and headed back.  I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. But eager to get on my way, and not wanting to disturb Nettie, I shrugged off the feeling and quietly slipped out of the room with my music.

The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope…. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.

People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out.  I rushed to a phone and called home. All I could hear on the other end was “Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead.”

When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that same night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart.

For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve Him anymore or write gospel songs.  I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well.

But then, as I hunched alone in that dark apartment those first sad days, I thought back to the afternoon I went to St. Louis .  Something kept telling me to stay with Nettie. Was that something God?

Oh, if I had paid more attention to Him that day, I would have stayed and been with Nettie when she died. From that moment on, I vowed to listen more closely to Him.  But still I was lost in grief.

Everyone was kind to me, especially one friend.  The following Saturday evening he took me up to Maloney’s College, a neighborhood music school.  It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows.

I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys.  Something happened to me then. I felt at peace.  I felt as though I could reach out and touch God.  I found myself playing a melody. Once in my head they just seemed to fall into place:

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand.
I am tired; I am weak; I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

The Lord gave me these words and melody.  He also healed my spirit. I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest  from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power.  And so I go on living for God willingly and joyfully, until that day comes when He will take me and gently lead me home.

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