Lena McLin was born in Atlanta, GA in 1929. Her father was a Baptist pastor and her mother was his Minister of Music. As Lena describes it, "we didn't know anything but music all of our lives."
Lena McLin went to live in Chicago with her uncle, gospel composer Thomas Dorsey, when his wife, Nettie, died in childbirth. It was 1932 and Lena was a little girl, but Thomas Dorsey wanted children around him, and Lena was already an accomplished musician, which Dorsey appreciated. Despite being away from her mother, Lena enjoyed living with Dorsey. He was a kind man, and taught her gospel songs on the piano. Her grandmother lived with them and would read to Lena from the Bible. She also sang spirituals from five in the morning when she woke up and throughout the day, patting her feet in time as she moved through the house.
Lena went to church and choir rehearsals with Dorsey, playing in the corner when she was small. As she got older, Dorsey let her accompany the choir on the piano for a few songs. Once, while playing piano for the Pilgrim Baptist Church Choir at a concert, a very fat lady was so moved by her playing that she "got the spirit" and started running down the aisle yelling, "play little girl!" Lena was so scared that she stopped playing and hid under the piano, much to the congregation's amusement.
Eventually, Dorsey remarried and had children, and McLin returned to Atlanta because, she says, "I had done my job." She went on to receive her B.M. in piano and violin from Spelman College in Atlanta, and then received her M.M. from the American Conservatory of Music, Chicago. McLin taught music in the Chicago public high schools for 36 years, nurturing hundreds of young singers and musicians. She is also a renowned composer of a wide range of music, including cantatas, masses, solo and choral arrangements of spirituals, anthems, rock operas, soul songs, works for piano and orchestra, and electronic music. Her most famous compositions are Gwendolyn Brooks: A musical Portrait, Free At Last, Psalm 117, and The Little Baby. In all her pieces, her musical style remains rooted in the church and gospel.