Blind street singer's mighty voice commands attention in Oakland

Chris Togneri
| Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Bill Dorsey steps carefully down Forbes Avenue in Oakland.

In his right hand he holds a broomstick, which doubles as a cane. He sweeps it across the pavement, searching for obstacles.

Slung over his left shoulder is a boom box, affixed by many yards of duct tape to milk crates — for sitting — and a cylinder — for receiving donations. He pauses at the corner at Atwood and Forbes, listens intently to the world around him, then crosses when he senses a clear, safe path.

Across the street, he settles in. Passers-by shoot sideways glances at him as Dorsey reaches down and adjusts knobs on the boom box.

The music begins. Dorsey begins to sway.

Praise God almighty, hallelujah. Love me tender, love me still. Make my dreams fulfilled.”

His deep voice rumbles smoothly through the cold air. It stops pedestrians in their tracks. The lyrics rise above the din of students, buses and helicopters. Across the street, people stare.

“I been singing all my life. When you can't see, you got to have something to do,” says Dorsey, 65, of the Hill District. “I sing gospel. I don't do no rap. I don't do no heavy metal. It's too graphic for the ladies to hear.”

A man walks over, stuffs bills into the cylinder and says, “Every time I give you money, I win the lottery. God bless you, Bill!”

His first public performance did not go so well.

It was more than 50 years ago, at his brother's birthday party. His Uncle Johnny taught him the words.

“I started to sing ‘Sixteen Candles' — sixteen candles and my heart will glow — but I was too shy and I stopped. Oh, yeah,” he says. “Uncle Johnny, he's dead now, he took the shyness out of me. But I stopped because everybody was saying, ‘Oh, we don't want to hear no more singing.' My siblings told me to be quiet.”

He quit the song that day, but not singing. It's what he does, he says, what ushers light into a dark world. He used to sing Downtown, in front of Kaufmann's. But when it closed, he chose another stage and, today, Dorsey is a fixture on this Forbes Avenue sidewalk.

“They'll recognize me when they see this cane,” Dorsey says. “They always tell me, ‘Watch that stick. You better not hit me with that stick.' And I say, ‘Well, give me your eyes and I'll see where I'm going, then you won't have to worry about this stick.' That's what I tell them. Then they say, ‘You ain't blind,' and I say, ‘Well, let me drive your car. I'm looking for a job anyways — $150 a week, I'll be your best chauffeur.' ”

Growing up blind was burdensome, he says, because people can be cruel to those who are different.

“They used to burn me with cigarettes,” he says. “I was everyone's bucket, everyone's ash tray. I was everyone's spittoon and everything else like that. They had no business throwing things in my face. They had no business hawking waste out of their mouths, and it went on my shirt and everything.”

He sought comfort in the church, but instead was sexually abused, he says.

“God is in some people's hearts,” he says flatly, “but not in everybody's.”

Truth is Bill Dorsey has had a difficult life.

Yet there he is day after day, sitting on the side of Forbes Avenue, sending his mighty voice out into the world, singing God's praise.

“It's not my fault I was born this way; this is how God planned me,” he says. “I believe he wants me to sing out here all the time.

“Here I can sing the way I want.”

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