Today marks the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, an event that shocked the nation when the civil rights leader was felled by an assassin’s bullet.
Moments before the single shot rang out, King had leaned over the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel and made what would be his final request to Ben Branch, director of the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir.
“Ben, make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ for me tonight,” he said. “Play it real pretty.”
Branch didn’t play the song (officially named, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”) that night for King or the packed crowd waiting to hear him at a rally in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers.
Mahalia Jackson would sing it for him on the campus of Morehouse College at a memorial following King’s funeral at his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
That song, one of my mother’s favorites — and one I can’t hear without becoming teary-eyed — has been a staple in the black church almost from the day it was written more than eight decades ago by Thomas A. Dorsey, “the father of gospel music.” Its 80th anniversary was marked this month with a special program at the University of Michigan Dearborn.
Many people believe it is much older than that, comparable to “Amazing Grace,” and with an equally moving back story.
I’ve seen movies set in the 1800s where someone sings those stirring lyrics, and I always cringe because I know Dorsey, a blues pianist who penned some of gospel’s most memorable tunes, wrote “Precious Lord” in 1932.
In the documentary film “Say Amen, Somebody,” Dorsey talked about the tragedy that led to the soul-stirring words that have been sung by some of the world’s greatest talents, including Aretha Franklin at Mahalia’s funeral; Leontyne Price at President Lyndon Johnson’s state funeral; Elvis Presley; Merle Haggard; and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Dorsey was in St. Louis organizing another choir when he received a telegram about his pregnant wife home in Chicago.
“I almost fell out,” he said. “It said, ‘Hurry home. Your wife just died.’”
He rushed home to find what he couldn’t believe: His wife, Nettie, had died giving birth to a boy.
“The baby was still alive, but in the next two days the baby died,” Dorsey said. “And what should I do then and there?”
For days, he was lost in his grief, calling on God to try to understand what had happened to him. Then came those now-famous words:
“Precious Lord, take my hand
“Lead me on, let me stand
“I am tired, I am weak, I am worn ...”
Many people become emotional just hearing the introduction to the song, or when an instrumental version is played by the likes of two Fort Worth virtuosos — saxophonist Vernard Johnson or organist Mark Davis.
Dorsey wrote scores of songs that would become gospel hits, such as “It’s a Highway to Heaven,” “Old Ship of Zion,” “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow,” “God Be with You,” “I Got Heaven in My View” and “Everyday Will be Sunday.”
But his signature piece will always be “Precious Lord,” the one that has been translated into almost 40 languages and will live long after him. Dorsey died in 1993 at age 93.
The second verse was Mama’s favorite:
“When my way grows drear
“Precious Lord linger near
“When my life is almost gone
“Hear my cry, hear my call
“Hold my hand lest I fall
“Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home”
On this day, I will be thinking a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. and what he meant to America and to me personally.
But I’ll also be thinking of Thomas A. Dorsey and all the gifts he left us.
Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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