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Willa Mae Dorsey, whose gospel-singing career lasted 56 years, filled five albums, won her a Grammy nomination and introduced black gospel music to many white congregations, died Jan. 5 at age 75.
Dorsey, who was born in Atlanta, lived in Portland, Ore., for almost 40 years. She began singing professionally when she was 19, tackling gospel songs written by her father’s cousin, Thomas A. Dorsey. He wrote, “Precious Lord,” one of her lifelong favorite songs.
In a 2002 interview, she recalled singing at Lincoln Center, performing with Mahalia Jackson and sharing the stage with the Rev.
Billy Graham. Dorsey sang in almost 40 countries for presidents, princes and ordinary people of faith.
“Gospel music is for everybody,” she said at the time. “The Creator is like the manufacturer who makes automobiles. If something is wrong with a car, you take it back to the manufacturer. … That’s where humanity has let itself down, by not going back to the manufacturer who made us.”
Dorsey was a trailblazer when it came to integrating churches in the 1960s, according to Bil Carpenter, who profiled her in his book on gospel music, “Uncloudy Days.”
“I broke the barrier for black singers in the white churches,” she told Carpenter. “I sang at a lot of white churches where they would come up to my face and tell me, `You are the first black to stand at our pulpit.”‘
Dorsey performed weekly on a black-owned and -operated radio station in Atlanta in the 1950s, and recorded with the Mighty Faith Increasers Choir in 1962. Her first solo album, “The World’s Most Exciting Gospel Singer,” was nominated for a Grammy in 1969. She recorded her best-known album, “Stand Tall,” in 1970.
A Billboard review at the time called her “one of the most original singers to ever emerge in the gospel scene.” Her “classical tones” and “unbelievable range” made her music an “unforgettable experience.”
She was a regular on Lawrence Welk’s television show, insisting that she would sing only gospel and patriotic songs.
“I don’t want to lose my anointing with God. So I have to stay on the straight and narrow,” she told George Cates, Welk’s musical director. “We’re trying to make a star out of you,” he replied, “and you’re trying to reach souls.”
As late as 2006, Dorsey was still playing piano and singing at her church in Portland. She’d linger after services to play the piano softly as people prayed in their seats. “It’s the least I can do,” she said. “People’s minds are so bothered in these days.”
By Nancy Haught
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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