Theodore Frye

The third person in the triumvirate established by Dorsey was Theodore R. Frye (1899-1963). Born in Fayette, Mississippi, Frye moved to Chicago in 1927. Having studied piano and voice as a child and having served as soloist and choir director in his hometown, Frye eagerly sought a musical camaraderie in Chicago with musicians who not only read music but who were not afraid to sing with the “spirit.” He found this in Dorsey. With Dorsey as his pianist, he quickly developed a reputation as a singer who could “move a house,” meaning that he was generally successful in arousing the emotions of a congregation. His light baritone was perfectly suited to the new gospel songs: enough volume in the low register to give a solid reading of the theme and enough notes in the upper register to display varied techniques while improvising. He and Dorsey became close friends and served as codirectors of the junior choir at Chicago’s Ebenezer Baptist Church; Frye became sole director in 1932 when Dorsey assumed the directorship of the gospel choir at Pilgrim. In 1933, a year after cofounding the NCGCC, he and Roberta Martin formed the Martin-Frye Quartet of young boys from Pilgrim’s Junior Choir. Although Frye composed the popular “Sending Up My Timber Up To Heaven” (1939) and “God’s Power Changes Things” (1949), he is more popularly known as the revisionist of “I’m Going to Walk That Milky White Way” (1948), first recorded by the CBS Trumpeteers in 1948 and a popular hit again in the late 1980s through a recording by the gospel/jazz a cappella group, Take Six. His compositions, like Dorsey’s are characterized by a poetic use of black rhetoric, singable melodies, and syncopated rhythms.

In the 1940s Frye became an associate of Mahalia Jackson and figured prominently in her second recording session for Apollo Records in 1947 that produced her greatest hit, “Move on up a Little Higher.” He was a cofounder of the National Baptist Music Convention (1948), and auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention that was organized to traiin musicians for the denomination. Frye worked with Lillian Bowles and Dorsey in their publishing firms and finally opened his own publishing house in 1948.

Excerpted from “The Golden Age of Gospel” by Horace Clarence Boyer