Fact Check

Precious Lord and Tommy Dorsey

Was 'Precious Lord' written by the famous big band leader Tommy Dorsey?

Published July 15, 2005


Claim:   In response to the death of his wife and child, Tommy Dorsey wrote the song "Precious Lord."

Status:   Multiple:

  • Famous big band leader Tommy Dorsey wrote the song "Precious Lord":   False.
  • Account describes the writing of "Precious Lord" by gospel great Thomas Andrew Dorsey:   True.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2005]

Back in 1932 I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago's Southside. 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 good-bye, 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, 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 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 any more 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 a friend, Professor Fry, who seemed to know what I needed. On the following Saturday evening he took me up to Malone's Poro 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 feel as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one I'd never heard or played before, and the words into 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.
        -Tommy Dorsey

Did you know that Tommy Dorsey wrote this song? I sure didn't. What a wonderful story of how God CAN heal the brokenhearted.
P.S. Beautiful, isn't it?

Origins:   The earliest record we have of the account quoted above appearing in the online world dates from January 2000, when it was posted to the newsgroup

Album Cover for Tommy Dorsey's 'Precious Lord'

nz.soc.religion. Variously titled "Birth of a song," "Beautiful Story!" and "The Birth of 'Precious Lord' by Tommy A. Dorsey," it has since been circulated widely in e-mail and reproduced on numerous web sites.

Its text came into the online world via a transcription of the article "The Birth of 'Precious Lord'," written by Tommy A. Dorsey and published in the inspirational magazine Guideposts in 1987. Other than a misspelling or two ('Professor Fry' and 'Malone's Poro College' of the e-mailed version are 'Professor Frye' and 'Madam Malone's Poro College' in the printed version), the one is a word-for-word transcription of the other. The article was also presented in the July/August 2000 edition of Hidden Wisdom magazine.

As to the question of whether the account is true, the answer is yes. The gospel great Thomas Andrew Dorsey did indeed weather the death of his wife, Nettie, and their newborn child, and these sad events served to inspire him to pen "Precious Lord" in 1932. The song has since been translated into 32 languages and was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s favorite, the one Mahalia Jackson sang at his funeral. It was also sung by Leontyne Price at President Lyndon B. Johnson's


Yet Thomas Andrew Dorsey of gospel renown and Tommy Dorsey of big band acclaim are not one and the same — they were two different men who, while they both made their marks in the music world, did so in different genres.

Tommy Dorsey, the acclaimed trombonist and dance-band leader, was born on 19 November 1905. After working for other bands, he and his brother Jimmy formed their own ensemble in 1920. The brothers had a falling out in 1935 and parted ways, Jimmy staying with The Dorsey Brother Orchestra but renaming it 'Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra,' and Tommy taking over what was left of another band to form his own group. In 1939 Tommy Dorsey hired Frank Sinatra away from rival bandleader Harry James. (While the various Dorsey bands recorded numerous songs that went to #1 on the charts of their day, a great many are unknown to music listeners of the modern era. Arguably, Sinatra's "I'll Never Smile Again" is one of the exceptions.) In 1953 Tommy Dorsey broke up his own band and returned to his brother's, the pair eventually renaming that ensemble the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Sedated by sleeping pills following a heavy meal, Dorsey accidentally choked to death at the age of 51 on 26 November 1956.

Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born in Villa Rica, Georgia, on 1 July 1899. He was a blues bandleader for singers including Ma Rainey, but after becoming a Christian he turned to writing gospel music, reportedly after undergoing a spiritual experience while hearing the hymn "I Do, Don't You?" at a Baptist convention. Across the course of his lifetime he penned more than a thousand gospel hymns, including "Say Amen," "Somebody," "Take My Hand" and "Peace in the Valley." He died in Chicago on 23 January 1993 of complications arising from Alzheimer's disease.

It is to be expected folks would confuse two musicians of the same name who were present on the music scene at approximately the same time. Beyond the difference in their genres of music, here's another way to tell the them apart: Tommy Dorsey the jazz musician of many popular hits was Caucasian, while Tommy A. Dorsey of gospel fame was African-American.

Barbara "and there you have it in black and white" Mikkelson

Last updated:   11 March 2009

  Sources Sources:

    Dorsey, Thomas A.   "The Birth of 'Precious Lord.'"

    Guideposts.   October 1987.

    Grimsley Johnson, Rheta.   "In Villa Rica, a Native Son's Legacy Is Sung."

    The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.   14 February 1999   (p. G1).

    Nott, Robert.   "Audiences Say Amen to Hymn Singers."

    Santa Fe New Mexican.   19 May 2000   (p. P46).

    Time.   "Lyndon Johnson: 1908-1973."

    5 February 1973   (p. P46).

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