John T. Benson Jr.
John T. Benson Jr. (1904 – 1966)
Inducted in 2013
Benefactors: SGMA Friends
Born April 30, 1904, Benson was the son and namesake of the founder of the Benson Publishing Company. Taking over upon his father’s death in 1930, he ultimately became a pivotal figure in the expansion of Southern Gospel via the Benson Company. His love for Christian ministry and sacred music led him to leave the general printing business and focus his personal efforts on religious music.
Beginning in the late 1940s, the Benson Company under his leadership became known for publishing and promoting all forms of sacred music, including the founding in the early 1960s of the Heartwarming and Impact Labels dedicated to Gospel music recording. Prior to his efforts, Gospel music performers typically languished as minor recording artists on major labels or survived via custom recordings only. Heartwarming and Impact represented a major breakthrough for Gospel music, heralding the professionalization of the industry at a time critical for its future. Benson’s personal efforts also extended to other areas of industry development; he was one of the founders and served as the first treasurer of the Gospel Music Association. John Benson Jr. passed away on Oct. 27, 1966, but is still remembered as a businessman whose honesty and integrity were critical in moving Southern Gospel into a more important place on the musical map of the 1960's and 1970's.
Polly Lewis-Copsey (1937-2018)
Inducted in 2013
Benefactors: Jeff & Sheri Easter
Leon Copsey – Scott Williamson
Madison & Shannon Easter
Morgan & Maura Easter
Born in Lincolnton, Georgia, on Jan. 23, 1937, Blanche Pauline Lewis was early on nicknamed “Polly” because she possessed such a happy, jovial spirit and captivated her family with a winning smile. It would be a smile that she would share her entire life with Gospel music fans across America and quite literally around the world.
As a member of the talented Lewis Family, Polly was performing regularly by the early 1960s ultimately establishing the singing side of the Lewis performances alongside sisters Miggie and Janis. As a traveling member of the Family, Polly performed at some of the most prestigious venues in the country, including the Lincoln Center in New York, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Polly provided a stabilizing force on stage somehow managing to return an audience to sanity amidst the frequent comic antics of younger brother “Little Roy.” Her voice became perhaps the most recognizable of the talented Lewises and she was featured on some of the Family’s best-known recordings, including “Slippers With Wings” and “Hallelujah Turnpike.” Five times she was honored as the winner of the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association’s Traditional Female Vocalist award and twice she walked away with the organization’s Overall Female Vocalist honors. Health concerns led to her retirement and the official disbanding of The Lewis Family in 2009 but Polly Lewis is certainly not forgotten. Her constant smile and grace onstage remains etched in the memory of Southern Gospel fans across the nation.
Thomas A. Dorsey
Thomas A. Dorsey (1899 – 1993)
Inducted in 2013
Benefactors: SGMA Friends
Born July 1, 1899, in Villa Rica, Georgia, Thomas Dorsey’s name is known literally in all genres of American Gospel music. The author of standards like “Peace in the Valley,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “If We Never Needed the Lord Before,” Dorsey migrated to Gospel from the Blues after a late 1920s religious experience with Jesus Christ changed his life forever.
The son of a Baptist minister and a devoted mother who served as church organist, Tom Dorsey came to religious music naturally one might suspect but it was a genre that he consciously rejected in his youth in favor of the raucous sound and lyrics of Blues. His family moved to Atlanta while he was still a small boy and, by the age of twelve, he began playing piano in the Blues style becoming known along parts of Decatur Street as “Barrelhouse Tom.” By 17, Dorsey had moved to Chicago and, as the decade of the 1920s dawned, he played speakeasies and brothels now far removed from the religious influences of his youth. Yet Chicago became the place that moved Dorsey to a new calling.
Attending a convention meeting at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1922, he experienced personal conversion and began writing some Gospel material. Nonetheless Dorsey would spend the remainder of the “Roaring 20s” torn between his talent as a Blues pianist and composer and his newfound love for Gospel. Initially, the lure of secular success seemed to pull hardest. Known as “Georgia Tom,” he flirted with commercial success before a series of emotional breakdowns brought him to his knees in the late-1920s. Through the godly influence of his mother, he ultimately turned his life back to his religious roots, giving up the Blues and dedicating his career solely to religious music.
Coincidentally, it was another religious crisis of sorts the untimely death of wife Nettie and his newborn son in 1932 that led, in the midst of personal grief, to the creation of his most famous song and one of the most piercing and poignant songs in all of music history, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” A pioneer of the modern Black Gospel genre, Dorsey’s works were so associated with the new style of Black Gospel music that, for a time, songs written in that style were known simply as “dorseys.” Beginning in the 1950s, as young Southern Gospel quartets struggled to emerge from the shadow of the control of shape-note music publishing companies, his works and the genre he inspired provided fertile ground for groups like The Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers to record and popularize their own versions of spirituals. Throughout his long life, Dorsey traveled as a song evangelist, promoting religious music and directing Gospel choirs. He passed from this life to his heavenly reward on Jan. 23, 1993.