Here is a classic song performed by the great opera singer, and one of the greatest gospel singers, Willa Dorsey.
Despite her high-flying career, Willa Dorsey (1933-2009) wasn’t so well-known in her adopted home town, Portland — except in church circles and among fellow musicians. She was a sweet woman with an amazing voice, and a fine pianist, and she managed to combine down-home humility with a regal air.
Dorsey was Portland’s most prominent gospel singer, though most of her performances were out of town. Her career took her to national television audiences, to presidential prayer breakfasts, to featured roles in several Billy Graham crusades, and around the world for acclaimed performances in countries as far-flung as Germany, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Japan. She was as comfortable with a 90-piece symphony orchestra or a 2,000-voice choir as she was alone behind a piano keyboard.
She sang in her home church, Mount Olive Baptist, which was built by the sons and daughters of slaves. She sang with a group called the Atlanta Aires, which used to open for famous gospel groups that came through town. Soon, she was singing on the same bill with the likes of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson.
With a touch of boogie-woogie in her fingers and a round, rich vibrato in her voice, she brought a sweetness and expansive power to her songs: not the strained, gutsy power of the blues, but an open-throated, pure tone from deep in her belly. Eyes closed, lips rounded and fully extended, brow furrowed in concentration, she inflected her songs with a light jump: an arrythmia of surprise. A sharp crack would break the beginning of a phrase; a straight line would end with the sliding intimation of a moan.
“I don’t think I sound like any other gospel singer,” she remarked, “because of the main fact that I was trained as an opera singer.”
Dorsey studied with Robert McFerrin — one of the first two black performers, with Marian Anderson, to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.
Dorsey ‘s own musical bloodline is as notable: she was closely related to Thomas A. Dorsey, one of the greatest of gospel composers, whose songs include “Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley.”
Her music was unmistakably Southern in origin. Yet her audiences were as responsive in the Soviet republics or Spain as in Dallas or her old home town. Why? “Gospel singing,” Dorsey explained, “is universal.”
Enjoy Willa Dorsey’s golden voice!
His eye is on the sparrow