Thomas Dorsey‘s National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses appropriately labled Sallie Martin “the Mother of Gospel”. Yes, she sang and her group the Sallie Martin Singers, had a following, but that is not why she’s Mama Gospel. She merits the title because the publishing firm she and Kenneth Morris launched in 1940, Martin & Morris Music, was responsible for popularizing gospel music during the idiom’s infancy. Whereas Thomas Dorsey’s publishing house only published his own compositions and Sallie Martin‘s firm only published songs she performed. Martin & Morris published and therefore popularized songs by all the important gospel composers of the day, such as William Brewster, Dorothy Love Coates, Alex Bradford, James Cleveland, Lucie Campbell, and Sam Cooke.
Born November 20, 1896, in Pittsfield, Georgia, Martin never knew anything about her father. She lived with her mother and her parents. Her mother was a traveling musician. After her mother’s death circa 1912, the teenager decided to leave Pittsfield because she didn’t want to be a cotton-picker like most people she knew. She quit school and moved to Atlanta where she took a succession of jobs such as babysitting, house cleaning and laundry work. In 1916, the family of the children she babysat encouraged her to attend the Fire Baptized Holiness Church with them. She enjoyed the spontaneity of the service and decided then to become a Christian.
Around 1929, she auditioned for the Pilgram Baptist Church Chorus, conducted by Thomas Dorsey. Initially, Dorsey was leery of Martin’s talents, but she was persistent about working with him because she knew that he was on the music fast track. Dorsey simply was not impressed and rejected her without second though on three occasions.
Finally, Martin sought the intervention of gospel composer Theodore R. Frye, whom she knew Dorsey respected. On Frye’s recommendation, Dorsey reluctantly allowed Martin to join a traveling trio he formed to demonstrate his songs at church convocations. Its was obvious to Dorsey that Martin was a born saleswoman, and against his better judgement, he began to work with her. As their relationship grew, Dorsey began to value Martin’s business sense and he tolerated her tirades because he came to feel he needed her for his success as much as she felt she needed him.
Martin and Dorsey had a falling out in 1940 when Dorsey didn’t defend her with some of his colleagues who suggested Martin, as a woman was in over her head. By this time Martin was almost as well known as Dorsey was, so with financial backing from Rev. Clarence H. Cobbs, she joined forces with gospel composer Kenneth Morris to open Martin & Morris Music. Just as she did to help Dorsey establish his publishing company, Martin went on the road to perform the songs from her publishing company. By all accounts, Martin picked up where she left off with Dorsey and her company eventually became bigger than his. Now that her firm was stable, Martin formed the Sallie Martin Singers, the first professional female gospel group on record.
Although her group disbanded in 1960, Martin didn’t. By then she was considered the wealthiest woman in gospel music, far richer than even the millionaire Mahalia Jackson.