JACKSON, MAHALIA (1911–1972) Singer
The United States’s most famous gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson was born in New Orleans on October 26, 1911. After her mother died when she was five, Mahalia went to live with an aunt. The strict upbringing she received included frequent attendance at a Baptist church, where Mahalia learned the standard repertoire of hymns while singing in the choir. She was even more infiuenced, however, by the music she heard coming out of the church next door to her house. Its members were of the Holiness sect, which attempted to revitalize slave religious traditions. In her 1966 autobiography, Movin’ On Up, Jackson later recalled, “Everybody in there sang and they clapped and stomped their feet and sang with their whole bodies. . . . Their music was so strong and expressive it used to bring the tears to my eyes.” Eager to escape the racial segregation of the South, Jackson moved to live with relatives in Chicago in 1928. While working as a laundress and a maid, she became a soloist in the choir at the Greater Salem Baptist Church. With other members, she formed the Johnson Gospel Singers and began touring small churches and revival meetings. Although most large African-American churches were moving toward increasingly sedate services, she found a ready audience for her exuberant and uninhibited performing style in smaller venues. While shouting out in her strong, bold voice, Jackson swayed from side to side, using her whole body to express her religious fervor. Often she rushed down from the stage, creating a sense of connection with the members of the congregation by singing among them.
In 1938 Jackson married Isaac Hockenhull, a chemist who created cosmetics that his wife then sold. With money from the business and from her singing engagements, she soon opened Mahalia’s Beauty Shop and an adjoining fiower shop. Hockenhull, however, pressed her to take one of her many offers to give up gospel music for more lucrative blues singing. Although her music borrowed heavily from the rhythms of the blues, ragtime, and jazz of New Orleans, Jackson steadfastly refused, maintaining she cared little about money. This sore point between her and her husband contributed to their divorce in 1943. (Jackson’s second marriage, in the mid-1960s to musician Sigmund Galloway, also ended in divorce.) Meanwhile, Jackson’ s singing career continued to blossom. From 1937 to 1946, she worked closely with Thomas A. Dorsey, then the premier composer of gospel songs. In addition to acting as her accompanist, he helped Jackson shape her talent, particularly by advising her on how to build her performances to a climax. Jackson first began recording in 1937, but her records did not reach a mass audience until Chicago radio personality Studs Terkel began playing her rendition of “I’m Goin’ to Tell God All About It One of These Days.” This exposure led to a contract with Apollo Records in 1946. The next year, her “Move On Up a Little Higher” sold more than 2 million copies.
By the 1950s, Jackson had become a national celebrity. She gave concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall, made regular television guest appearances, and began recording with a full orchestra on Columbia Records, though she continued to resist continual efforts to make her sing more secular fare. In Chicago, she had her own television show on CBS but could not convince the network to televise it nationally for fear of offending southern white audiences.
Jackson’s reputation grew when she became involved in the civil rights movement. In 1956 she traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to show her support for the African-American bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. She remained a close associate of King’s, notably performing during the 1963 March on Washington just before King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Sadly, she also sang at his and Robert F. Kennedy’s funerals in 1968.
In the 1960s, Jackson also launched several successful tours of Europe, where she had a substantial following. Her health, however, became increasingly fragile due to a heart condition. It finally took her life on January 27, 1972, At her funeral, ARETHA FRANKLIN—one of the many young artists she had championed—sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” one of Jackson’s bestloved songs.
* "What Child Is This"
* "How I Got Over"
* "Trouble of the World"
* "Silent Night"
* "Go Tell It on the Mountain"
* "Amazing Grace"
* "Move On Up A Little Higher"
* "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" (performed this song at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral)
* "Remember Me"
* "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho"
* "Holding My Saviour's Hands"
* "Roll Jordan, Roll"
* "The Upper Room"
* "We Shall Overcome"
* "I'm on My Way to Canaan"
* "You'll Never Walk Alone"
* "His Eye is on the Sparrow"
Jackson, Mahalia, with Evan McLeod Wylie. Movin’ On Up. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1996.
Schwerin, Jules. Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Best of Mahalia Jackson. Sony/Columbia, CD, 1995.
Gospels, Spirituals, and Hymns. Sony/Columbia, CD, 1998.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1958). New Yorker Films, DVD/VHS, 2000.