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William L. Dawson Tribute

September 26, 1899 -- May 2, 1990

William L. Dawson
William L. Dawson
Famous Composer, Conductor, Director

William Levi Dawson was born in Anniston, Ala., the first of seven children born to George W. and Eliza Starkey Dawson. At the age of 13 he ran away from home to enter Tuskegee (Institute) University. He supported himself by manual labor, and was a member of Tuskegee’s band and orchestra. He completed his education at Tuskegee in 1921.

Dawson studied composition and orchestration with Henry V. Stearns at Washburn College in Topeka, Kan., and studied counterpoint with Sir Carl Busch in Kansas City, Mo. In 1925 he received a Bachelor of Music Degree in theory at the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City, Mo. In Chicago, at the American Conservatory of Music, he studied composition with Adolph Weidig and was graduated in 1927 with a master’s degree in composition. Following his graduation, he studied with the distinguished composer and theorist Thorvald Otterstrom of Chicago.

Dawson held the position of first trombonist in the Chicago Civic Orchestra from 1926 to 1930, Frederic Stock and Eric De Lamarter, conductors. He also won the Chicago Daily News contest for band directors in 1920, and in 1930 won Wanamaker Contest prizes for song and orchestral compositions.

In 1931, Dawson organized and headed the School of Music at Tuskegee (Institute) University. Under his conductorship from 1931 to 1955, the Tuskegee choir of one hundred voices gained international fame. In 1932-1933, the choir was a main attraction at the opening of the International Music Hall of Radio City, New York.

On September 21, 1935, he married the former Cecile DeMae Nicholson of Watonga, Okla.

By invitation, the Tuskegee Choir performed for President Hoover in the White House and for President Roosevelt at Hyde Park, New York. It also performed in such prestigious concert halls as Carnegie Hall, the Academy of Music at Philadelphia, and Constitution Hall, Washington, D.C. The Tuskegee Choir has given numerous performances over national radio for NBC, ABC, and CBS. Mr. Dawson resigned as Director of Music in 1955.

Dawson has made guest appearances throughout the United States and abroad, and has worked with many All-State Choirs and leading university workshop. In 1952, he traveled to West Africa and researched indigenous music of many countries in the region. In 1956, he was sent to Spain by the United States Department of State to conduct various Choral ensembles of that county. The highlight of the tour was a special concert with the famous Orfeon Donostiarra of San Sebastian in the Bascilica at Loyola on July 29, 1956. In 1972, Dawson was featured as keynote speaker at the Afro-Caribbean Music Conference in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

Dawson’s compositions include the "Negro Folk Symphony," which was world premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Among Dawson’s many honors is the Honorary Doctor of Music Degree from Tuskegee Institute, which he received at the institution’s Diamond Jubilee in 1956. In 1975, the American Choral Directors Association honored him for "pioneering leadership, inspiration, and service to the choral art." In 1978, he received the Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from Lincoln (Pa.) University. And in 1922, the Honorary Doctor of Music Degree was conferred upon him by Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York.

On May 12, 1989, he received the prestigious Tuskegee University Board of Trustees Distinguished Service Award. He later was honored by Tuskegee University as part of his 90th birthday celebration in September of the same year.

Dawson died on May 2, 1990, and is buried in the Tuskegee University cemetery. His legacy lives on through the Tuskegee University Golden Voices Choir which he begun and directed nearly a century ago.