Willa Dorsey, 1933-2009: Farewell to God’s golden voice

Sad news in this morning’s Oregonian, as reported by Nancy Haught: Willa Dorsey, the great gospel singer who lived in Portland between her worldwide rambles, died Jan. 5 after a series of strokes. She was 75. Her funeral will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the International Fellowship Family, 4401 N.E. 122nd Ave., Portland.

Despite her high-flying career, Dorsey wasn’t terrifically well-known in her adopted home town — except in church circles and among fellow musicians. She was a sweet woman with an amazing voice, and a fine pianist, and she somehow managed to combine down-home humility with a regal air. I spent some time with her in 1991, working on some stories for The Oregonian on gospel music and its influence on American art and culture, and I’ve remembered her fondly ever since, although in the succeeding years I ran into her only two or three times. In her memory — and to introduce Willa to those of you who never knew her or her music — I’m going to post two stories that originally ran in The Oregonian on Dec. 22, 1991. These are time capsules, but they get at something of the spirit of Willa’s music and remarkable life. This post is a profile of Willa; the one below is its companion story about gospel music, and it includes more information about her. Goodbye, Willa. As you would have said, God bless.

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It might have been 1939, she thinks. Young Willa Dorsey, maybe 6 years old, was playing outside, idly running through a few tunes she’d heard at church.

Suddenly she heard her mother, alert and mildly worried, calling sharply from inside:

“Who’s out there with you?”

“I said, `No one,’ ” Dorsey recalls with amusement.

“She said, `There has to be. I heard someone singing.’

“I said, `That’s me.’ ”

Dorsey pauses, then leaps into her punchline:

“And she didn’t believe me!”

No wonder: It just sounded too good. But a couple of quick demonstrations convinced Mr. and Mrs. Dorsey that their daughter had been hiding a special talent — “a God-given gift,” as Willa firmly puts it. Soon she was singing on stages in her home town of Atlanta, Ga.

For half a century, she hasn’t stopped.

Now 58, Dorsey is Portland’s most prominent gospel singer, though most of her performances are out of town. She can look back on a career that’s taken her to national television audiences, to presidential prayer breakfasts (“Mrs. Bush and I are friends,” she says offhandedly. “We correspond.”), 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’s as comfortable with a 90-piece symphony orchestra or a 2,000-voice choir as she is alone behind a piano keyboard.

And she’s still singing those songs she heard in church.

A beaming, capacious woman whose round form resonates a bulldog’s resolve, Dorsey has lived a life immersed in music. Church music: the sounds of gospel and spirituals and the South.

“When I was a young person, was what we did was go from concert to concert on a Sunday,” she remembers. “Sometimes four, five churches in an afternoon. And then to our own church in the evening.”

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.

Dorsey ‘s love for music has taken her far from her original home.

“If you knew how many places I’ve lived,” she says with a laugh, “you’d have to have a scroll.”

It’s a slow, humorous, carefully enunciated voice that rises and falls like a window shade. After all these years, the rich red dirt of Georgia still clings to it like a peach to a pit.

“My parents died, and I just traveled around singing. I’ve lived just about everywhere. New York area. New Jersey. California. Oh, all over. I was kind of unsettled, you know. But I keep coming back to Portland.”

Between her travels, Dorsey is back in Portland once again, living quietly — almost invisibly, as far as public performances are concerned.

But on a recent day she stopped in at the Cascade Music Center in the Hollywood district for an impromptu concert, moving happily from piano to piano while sales clerks and customers cheered her on.

“Silent Night.” “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” “His Eye Is On the Sparrow.” “How Great Thou Art.” “It Is No Secret.” “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

With a touch of boogie-woogie in her fingers and a round, rich vibrato in her voice, she brings 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 inflects her songs with a light jump: an arrythmia of surprise. A sharp crack will break the beginning of a phrase; a straight line will end with the sliding intimation of a moan.

“I don’t think I sound like any other gospel singer,” she remarks, “because of the main fact that I was trained as an opera singer.”

Like most specialized endeavors, the musical world is a small one that is crisscrossed with past encounters and coincidence.

Dorsey studied with Robert McFerrin — one of the first two black performers, with Marian Anderson, to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. “And did he have a voice!” she exclaims. “You know that Bobby McFerrin, who makes all those sounds hittin’ on his body? That’s his son.”

Dorsey ‘s own musical bloodline is as notable: She’s closely related to Thomas A. Dorsey, one of the greatest of gospel composers, whose songs include “Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley.”

“That’s my daddy’s first cousin,” she says. “He’s originally from Macon, Georgia, where my daddy comes from.”

Her music is unmistakably Southern in origin. Yet her audiences are as responsive in the Soviet republics or Spain as in Dallas or her old home town. Why?

“Gospel singing,” Dorsey explains with a smile, “is universal.”

And she gets up to try out another piano.