(The Reverend Thomas Dorsey at right on piano)
This past Saturday Matt, Dave, and I went to go hear a night of the compositions of the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey (not to be confused with the band leader Tommy Dorsey) at Miller Theater with an ensemble led by the pianist Eric Reed and featuring trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon. The night was as much about education as it was the music itself and Eric gave us a good bit of background about the career of the good reverend as well as his music.
The concert was broken up into two parts. The first part focused on Dorsey’s blues compositions. And as Eric reminded us, Thomas once said that “The blues is just a good woman feeling bad” and sent this first half of double-entendre filled music on its way with the reminder that a good woman feeling bad still feels pretty good. They played an instrumental piece and then traded verses on a nice little ditty called “Bumpity-Bump,” an onomatopoetic euphemism. The was followed by the equally delightful but less obfuscated “It’s Tight Like That.” These tunes brought some good chuckles from the crowd and at least a few opportunities for the 11 year-old girl in front of us playing her Nintendo DS to consult her mother about why everyone was laughing.
Next we came to the second party. We heard about some tragedy that befell the Reverend Dorsey and how he came to hear the Good News. This was good news for us because for because he brought out onto stage the amazing vocalist Ella Mitchell (who you might better remember as Big Mama), Damien Sneed (who you can catch having some serious fun here) on organ, Dezron L. Douglas (who was sporting a most excellent neck-beard) on stand-up and electric bass, McClenty Douglas Hunter Jr. on drums. They were accompanied by a chorus of a thousand voices: Stephanie Oplacio, Melonie Daniels, Bettina Harris, Faith Monah, Katrice Walker, and Linny Smith.
They began by featuring Ella Mitchell on “Everyday Will Be Sunday Bye and Bye” and by George it was incredible! The entire theater was instantly filled with a bright blast of sound and energy that just got everyone going. Even the 11 year-old put down the Nintendo DS for at least 15 seconds. This was followed by “Search Me Lord” which featured some delicate, subdued harmonies on the penultimate verse, Ella again on the song most of us know from Elvis Presley, “Peace in the Valley,” and “The Life I Sing About in My Song.”
Each one of these songs was worth the price of admission, but things just got better. We were treated to the variety of forms the Reverend Dorsey’s songs could take. The next two songs were different arrangements of “Walking Up the King’s Highway.” The first version featured Ella Mitchel and was bright and lively straight through. The second version was an alternate arrangemen by (I believe) W. C. Hawkins. This version featured Bettina Harris on lead and man oh man! did she ever bring it. This version was slower and smoother and featured more of a build toward the spectacular finale. Harris was performing these incredible acrobatics with her voice that were as powerful as they were nimble. She got serious applause for this and deserved it. We then got a multi-lead featuring all the vocalists on “Jesus Remembers When Others Forget.” When Ella got to hear verse it reminded me (as I needed to be after Harris’s feature) that despite the fact that she didn’t perform the same vocal tour de force that Harris did, there was a depth to her voice that conveyed age and conviction in a way that none of the others on stage could quite do. There was a reason she was sitting front and center and wearing bright pink.
The group then moved on to an interesting sequence where we heard the chorus perform the standard “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone” which Reed put directly into Dorsey’s adaptation of it which became “Precious Lord Take My Hand” featuring Ella. The ensemble then closed with “I’ll Be With You Until We Meet Again.” And despite an almost entirely standing ovation and Matt’s enthused cries of “More! More!” we heard no more of the Good News that night.
It would have to be church on Sunday for that.