It's probably gospel music's most famous, most widely-recorded song, Thomas A. Dorsey's 1932 composition "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." The tune is one of those rare non-traditional numbers that has found its place in both the black and white gospel traditions, recorded by everyone from Mahalia Jackson and the Soul Stirrers to Roy Acuff, Elvis Presley, and Merle Haggard.
The tale of Dorsey's transformation from Georgia Tom into the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey is oft-told: how a piano playing songwriter and arranger who backed Ma Rainey on the black vaudeville circuit and composed salacious party tunes for his duo with guitarist Tampa Red became gospel music's greatest songwriter and founder of both the first black-owned gospel publishing company and of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
Here's Dorsey, as Georgia Tom, with Tampa Red playing Dorsey's most famous blues "Tight Like That" in a 1928 recording:
Dorsey's was a creeping conversion, at least in terms of his career as a songwriter. Born again in 1921 Dorsey continued to write blues but he also began writing religious songs that mixed his blues sensibility with the black baptist hymnal style of mid Atlantic preacher C.A. Tindley, who, in the early 20th century had composed many proto-gospel classics including "We'll Overcome Someday," "By and By" and "Stand By Me."
It wasn't until Dorsey had managed to sell a few copies of the sheet music of his first gospel tune, "If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me," at the 1930 National Baptist Convention, that Dorsey abandoned secular music all together.
"Precious Lord," as it has come to be commonly known, grew from personal tragedy, famously composed by Dorsey in a depression following the deaths in childbirth of his first wife and their child in 1932, borrowing a melody from an 1844 hymn called "Maitland." The earliest know recordings of Dorsey's number date from 1937 waxed first by The Heavenly Gospel Singers in a pop tinged vocal quartet arrangement, and by Elder Charles Beck in a piano-backed bluesy version that one imagines is closest to the way Dorsey must have originally played it.
In the years since the song has received every kind of treatment one can imagine, from the hard driving sanctified quartet version by RH Harris and the Soul Stirrers that is my all-time favorite:
To Mahalia Jackson's slow devotional version:
To Tennesse Ernie Ford's fascinating 1950s version that mixes gospel and pop arrangement:
To this beautiful trombone sonata performance by Wycliffe Gordon:
But it doesn't get much better than the 14-year old Aretha Franklin in 1956 singing in her father's church in Detroit. The recording picks up with the performance already under way but just about to take off. All I can say is, amen!