Mahalia Jackson - Biography

By Lee Hildebrand


Mahalia Jackson is the most celebrated and successful of all African American gospel singers. In her lifetime, she sang for presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who counted her as his favorite vocalist. She performed at Carnegie Hall and on other concert stages throughout the United States and Europe, yet she remained a heroine to the regular church folk who had first embraced her. And while the blues of Bessie Smith were reflected in Jackson’s booming contralto tones, melismatic moans, chilling sustains, and rhythmic flow, Jackson never succumbed to offers to use her gifts in the service of blues or jazz. Her message was the gospel of Jesus Christ, and she delivered it with sublime artistry and consummate dignity during a career in which she was justifiably billed as “The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer.”


Mahala Jackson was born on October 26, 1911, in New Orleans. Her father, Johnny Jackson Sr., worked as a longshoreman and barber in his younger days, and he later became a pastor. Halie, as Mahala was known as a child, was one of 13 people—including her mother, Charity, her brother, Roosevelt, and several aunts and cousins—who lived in a three-room house in the Black Pearl section of uptown New Orleans. Her mother worked as a maid for a white family whom Halie, although severely bow-legged during her childhood, sometimes entertained with her dancing. Before long, the young Jackson was singing tunes that she overheard while passing by neighborhood saloons, and one of them—the pop song “Ballin’ the Jack,” named for a popular bump-and-grind dance step of the period—became a staple.


Halie was 6-years-old when her mother died, and she was thereafter raised by her namesake, Aunt Mahala, who was known as “Duke” because of her strict, bossy ways. Jackson spent her days cleaning house with meticulous detail, because if it didn’t pass her aunt’s white-glove inspections she was whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails. Aunt Duke pulled Halie out of school in the middle of the fourth grade in order to babysit her younger cousins. Her aunt didn’t allow secular music in the house but, when she was away, Halie found solace listening to blues records by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, as well as opera by Enrico Caruso, on a wind-up Victrola. She also found immense joy in singing at Mount Moriah Baptist Church, which she attended with her aunt on Wednesday and Friday nights, as well as four times on Sundays.


At 16-years-old, accompanied by another aunt, Jackson caught a train to Chicago and never looked back. On her very first Sunday in the Windy City, Jackson attended Greater Salem Baptist Church and offered an impromptu rendition of the spiritual, “Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, Gabriel.” The choir director was impressed, although he felt her voice was too powerful to blend with the choir and instead designated Jackson for solos. As her reputation spread, she was soon singing at other churches in Chicago and the surrounding areas as a member of a quartet called The Johnson Family Singers. Though it wasn’t much, she was even getting paid for it.


In 1928, Jackson’s blues-imbued approach to religious songs caught the ears of Thomas A. Dorsey, a popular blues singer and pianist, known professionally as Georgia Tom. Dorsey was in the process of reinventing himself as a Christian songwriter, using his knowledge of blues and jazz and applying those elements to gospel music. He found Jackson’s delivery to be startlingly over-the-top, once describing her as “one of them coon-shoutin’ singers,” but he took her under wing. Dorsey showed her how to use restraint in order to escalate a song from a whisper to a holler. For the next 14 years, Jackson helped spread Dorsey’s gospel songs in churches and at conventions. His composition “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” became Jackson’s signature song. Years later, in 1968, Jackson would sing it at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Four years later, Aretha Franklin sang it at Jackson’s.


Mahala, who added an “i” to her name around 1931—now Mahalia—made her recording debut on May 21, 1937. She cut four songs for Decca Records in Chicago, though none attracted much attention. Given her voice, the label tried to persuade Jackson to record some blues songs, but she refused. Subsequently, the company dropped her. Jackson would not enter a recording studio again for another nine years. Instead, she opened her own business in Chicago, Mahalia’s Beauty Salon, in 1939. She straightened hair during the week but continued singing on weekends, often traveling with Dorsey to Detroit and other Midwestern engagements.


Jackson signed with Apollo Records in New York City in 1946. Her first two singles didn’t garner a lot of notice aside from Chicago disc jockey, Studs Terkel, who played them over and over. However, her third Apollo release, a two-sided rendition of William Herbert Brewster’s “Move On Up A Little Higher,” caught fire, selling 50,000 copies in Chicago in four weeks and millions nationally. (Estimates range from two to eight million.) The 1947 recording, which would be honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998, quickly transformed the hair stylist into a major concert attraction.


Jackson made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1950 as the headliner of a program billed as the Negro Gospel Music Festival. She remained with Apollo through 1954, scoring such other hits as “Dig a Little Deeper,” “Silent Night, Holy Night,” “How I Got Over,” and “I Believe.” The European theater, where her 1949 recording of “Let the Power of the Holy Ghost Fall on Me” had won the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Disque, soon beckoned.


In 1954, at the recommendation of veteran talent spotter John Hammond, producer Mitch Miller signed Jackson to Columbia Records. She was also offered her own half-hour Mahalia Jackson Show on CBS Radio, which she tried out. The program, scripted by Terkel, lasted 20 weeks, but Jackson’s affiliation with Columbia Records lasted until the end of her life. Though poor health would prevent her from recording during the final three years.         


Miller’s intention from the beginning was to mainstream Jackson’s music, to broaden the appeal to non-gospel audiences and to white people in particular. The singer brought several of Dorsey’s songs, including “Walk Over God’s Heaven,” to the November 1954 session that yielded her first Columbia album, The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer. Miller also insisted that she record “A Rusty Old Halo,” a sentimental, quasi-religious waltz on which he had Jackson multi-track her voice, similarly to what Patti Page did on her pop smash “The Tennessee Waltz” four years earlier.


Jackson’s prolific Columbia output was frequently marred by string orchestras and Caucasian choruses, yet she was commonly afforded to record unadulterated gospel music backed by her longtime accompanist, pianist Mildred Falls, as well. Her LPs Live at Newport, 1958 (1958), Mahalia Jackson Recorded Live in Europe During Her Latest Concert Tour (1961), and How I Got Over (released posthumously in 1976) are examples of the latter. Jackson also sang two religious songs with The Duke Ellington Orchestra on the jazz composer’s Black, Brown and Beige (1958 Columbia).


By the late-1950s, Jackson had not only become the world’s most successful gospel singer but also the most visible. She was a frequent guest on national television variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore and others; she appeared in the motion pictures St. Louis Blues (1958) and Imitation of Life (1959); and she sang at President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. On August 28, 1963, Jackson sang “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” for 250,000 people assembled near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC prior to Dr. King’s monumental “I Have a Dream” speech. Seated on the podium as Dr. King spoke, Jackson can be overheard shouting, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”


In 1961, the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences established a gospel music category for its annual Grammy Awards ceremony, specifically to honor Mahalia Jackson. She won that year in the Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording category for the album Everytime I Feel the Spirit. She won again in 1962 for Great Songs of Love and Faith, and in 1963 for Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord. She also took home a Grammy in the new Best Soul Gospel Performance category twice—in 1969 for Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah and posthumously in 1976 for How I Got Over. Jackson was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972, and other posthumous honors include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007, induction as an “early influence” into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and the issuance of a $.32-cent US postage stamp in 1998.


Jackson suffered from heart and back problems from the 1950s onward, with Diabetes later began taking a toll on the singer. She died of heart failure at a hospital near her Chicago home on January 27, 1972. Two funerals were held, one in Chicago, where Rev. C.L. Franklin preached, Aretha Franklin sang, and Thomas A. Dorsey, Coretta Scott King, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley spoke. And then in New Orleans, where Bessie Griffin sang and Dick Gregory and Lou Rawls offered eulogies.


Jackson’s Apollo recordings have been reissued on several CDs, including the 16-song Queen of Gospel Music (1997 Music Club) and the 22-song Complete Mahalia Jackson Vol. 1 1937-1946 (2002 Frémeaux & Accociés), the latter disc which includes her four Decca sides, as well. Many of Jackson’s original Columbia LPs are now available on CD, as are the two-disc compilations Gospel Spirituals & Hymns (1998 Columbia/Legacy), Gospel, Spirituals & Hymns Vol. 2 (1992 Columbia/Legacy), and The Essential Mahalia Jackson (2004 Sony).

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