Tag Archives: Willa Dorsey

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.


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.

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The river of gospel, running through America

Like the post above, this story — which ran originally in The Oregonian on Dec. 22, 1991 — is a tribute to the great gospel singer Willa Dorsey, who died in Portland on Jan. 5 at age 75. Above is my profile of Dorsey from 17 years ago. Here is its companion piece, about the role of gospel music in American art and culture, with more contributions from Dorsey. May she sing with the angels.


“O sing unto the Lord a new song, for He hath done marvelous things. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, thy King.” — Psalm 98

“Why should the devil have all the good tunes?” — John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism

Like a great river rolling underground, American gospel music is a fount of life bubbling just below public consciousness. Maybe you don’t know it’s there. But it’s been nourishing you all your life.

Born in the churches and nurtured as a celebration and protection against emotional harm, black gospel music has watered an astonishing amount of the country’s popular music — blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, street corner do-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, even contemporary pop by the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson.

As Christmas approaches, Americans are caught up in other countries’ musical traditions: carols from England; high-church music from Germany and Italy; “Nutcracker” fantasies courtesy of a melodic, grandfatherly 19th-century Russian.

But there is also a sound of celebration much closer to the native grain: as close as the doors to such North and Northeast Portland churches as Maranatha and Mt. Olivet Baptist. In those vibrant congregations and others like them, the flame of a peculiarly American tradition is kept enthusiastically alive.

Continue reading The river of gospel, running through America