Georgia Tom Dorsey first gained recognition as a blues pianist in the 1920s and later became known as the father of gospel music for his role in developing, publishing, and promoting the gospel blues.
Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born in Villa Rica on July 1, 1899, to Etta Plant Spencer and Thomas Madison Dorsey, an itinerant preacher and sharecropper. Dorsey was first exposed to music in church, where he heard shape-note singing and emotional, moaning spiritual songs. His mother was a respected organist, and Dorsey began playing the instrument at a young age.
In 1908 the family relocated to Atlanta, where Dorsey was introduced to a broader spectrum of secular music, especially on the Decatur Street scene. He worked at the Eighty-One Theater, where he witnessed performances by Gertrude Ma Rainey, met Bessie Smith, and learned from house pianists Ed Butler, James Henningway, and Lark Lee, as well as from Ninety-One Theater house pianist Eddie Heywood. From age twelve to fourteen Dorsey played at house parties and brothels in Atlanta, gaining the nickname Barrel House Tom.
In 1916 Dorsey moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he continued his musical training at the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging, and in 1920 he published his first composition. Throughout the 1920s Dorsey's rising fame derived from his blues music, beginning with a job in Will Walker's Whispering Syncopaters. To earn money Dorsey worked as a composer and arranger for the Chicago Music Publishing Company under J. Mayo Williams and as a music coach for Paramount and Vocalion Records. Meanwhile, his decision to publish his own music paid off when both Monette Moore and King Oliver recorded his pieces.