Mahalia Jackson

Jun 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Mahalia Jackson1911 – 1972  Mahalia Jackson expressed an uplifting spiritual force with a unique voice and musical style, combining elements of Sanctified, Baptist, Blues, and Jazz music. Her ability to convey a moving sense of hope and human aspiration touched audiences worldwide, and made Gospel music the broadly popular genre it is today.

Jackson was born in 1911 in the heart of musical ferment, New Orleans. By the age of four, she was singing in the children’s choir of the church of her father, Johnny Jackson, who was a longshoreman, barber, and Baptist preacher. Her mother, Charity Clark, died when Jackson was five, and she was sent to live with an aunt and her extended family. Growing up, Jackson heard everything from seminal Storyville jazz artists (where Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong got their start) to the drums and percussion of the Sanctified church style, and from Mardi Gras street bands to Baptist spiritual hymns, with recordings of blues pioneers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith mixed in. The family had a strict religious orientation, especially toward music. Jackson also learned the value of thrift and hard work, beginning as a laundress while still in grade school.

In 1928, 16-year-old Jackson joined the great northern migration to Chicago in pursuit of economic opportunity. Continuing to work as a laundress while studying to become a beautician, she was immediately recognized as a special talent in the Greater Salem Baptist Church choir, and was given solo singing opportunities while touring with one of the first professional Gospel groups, the Johnson Gospel Singers. In 1934, she made her first recording, “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares,” for which she was paid $25. Jackson opened a beauty shop of her own, and in 1936 married the entrepreneur Isaac Hockenhull. “Ike” urged her to sing more remunerative popular music, but Jackson refused. The marriage ended in divorce. Meanwhile, her popularity grew with church appearances all over Illinois and throughout the Midwest, and cities as distant as New Orleans, Buffalo, New York, and Birmingham, Alabama.

“Move On Up a Little Higher”

From 1937 to 1946, Jackson was closely affiliated with the great Gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey, who became her musical advisor and accompanist. The two were widely known for their performances at churches, religious conventions, and gospel tents. The National Baptist Convention named Jackson its official soloist in 1947. Jackson then began a 10-year relationship with Apollo Records. The second recording she made there, “Move On Up a Little Higher” (recorded in 1947 and released in 1948) became the best-selling Gospel song of all time at over two million copies. Its popularity signaled a cross-over success from the traditional Black audience to new white fans. Some mainstream congregations felt that Jackson’s physical and sensual style (and perhaps her popularity) transgressed Gospel’s proper role, but in this too she broke down boundaries to “spreading the good news. It [Gospel] will last as long as any music because it is sung straight from the human heart.” Back on the road, she bought a Cadillac with room enough to sleep in when there were no accommodations for Blacks, and stocked it with food as an alternative to segregated restaurants.

Jackson was awarded the French Grand Prix du Disque in 1949 and toured extensively in Europe beginning in 1952; in France, she was known as “The Angel of Peace.” Subsequent tours brought her to Africa, Japan, and India. At one memorable concert in Israel, she sang to an audience composed of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in her universal language of faith and hope. In the U.S., she began appearing more often in concert halls than churches, including four performances at Carnegie Hall. Beginning in 1954, she recorded for Columbia Records using orchestras and other non-traditional arrangements for such songs as “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” “Down by the Riverside,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and the New Orleans classic “When the Saints Go Marching In.” She also performed with popular artists, and in Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige” suite. Also in 1952, CBS engaged Jackson to host a weekly Sunday evening radio show, making her the first to reach a national audience with Gospel music and her incomparably expressive contralto voice. A 1956 television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show cemented her broad popularity and mainstream appeal, crowned by a triumphant performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.

Sang for Presidents

The turbulent 1960s brought Jackson into the civil rights arena. She developed a close association with The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. At his urging, she participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At 1963’s March on Washington, she sang the slave spiritual “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” before a crowd of 200,000 at the Lincoln Memorial as the prelude to King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” She remained a staunch supporter of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Her fame brought her into contact with royalty, foreign heads of state, and U.S. presidents. She sang at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 and was acquainted with Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. She received the Silver Dove Award for “work of quality doing the most good for international understanding.” She was also active in efforts to improve education for African Americans, and continued her entrepreneurial bent with a chain of soul food restaurants. She published her autobiography, Movin’ On Up, in 1966. In keeping with King’s final request, Jackson sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at his funeral.

Compounding the multiple tragedies of 1968, Jackson’s second marriage ended in an unpleasant and very public divorce, leading to health problems. Then, after some years out of the limelight and despite doctors’ orders to reduce her work burden, Jackson resumed touring and concertizing, with a farewell tour in Germany in 1971 at which she collapsed on stage. She died in Chicago on January 27, 1972. Her funeral was attended by over 6,000 admirers. In a moving show of artistic and spiritual legacy, Aretha Franklin sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Jackson was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1978. She is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “Early Influence” inductee, where her “Move On Up a Little Higher” is one of “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”


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