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Jackson, Mahalia 1911–1972

Mahalia Jackson 19111972

Gospel singer

At a Glance

Tempted by the Blues

Reigned as Gospel Queen

Involved in the Civil Rights Movement

Selected discography

Sources

Throughout her celebrated career, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson used her rich, forceful voice and inspiring interpretations of spirituals to move audiences around the world to tears of joy. In the early days, as a soloist and member of church choirs, she recognized the power of song as a means of gloriously reaffirming the faith of her flock. And later, as a world figure, her natural gift brought people of different religious and political convictions together to revel in the beauty of the gospels and to appreciate the warm spirit that underscored the way she lived her life.

The woman who would become known as the Gospel Queen was born in 1911 to a poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Jacksons Water Street home, a shotgun shack between the railroad tracks and the levee of the Mississippi River, was served by a pump that delivered water so dirty that cornmeal had to be used as a filtering agent. Jacksons father, like many blacks in the segregated south, held several jobs; he was a longshoreman, a barber, and a preacher at a small church. Her mother, a devout Baptist who died when Mahalia was five, took care of the six Jackson children and the house, using washed-up driftwood and planks from old barges to fuel the stove.

As a child, Mahalia was taken in by the sounds of New Orleans. She listened to the rhythms of the woodpeckers, the rumblings of the trains, the whistles of the steamboats, the songs of sailors and street peddlers. When the annual festival of Mardi Gras arrived, the city erupted in music. In her bedroom at night, young Mahalia would quietly sing the songs of blues legend Bessie Smith.

But Jacksons close relatives disapproved of the blues, a music indigenous to southern black culture, saying it was decadent and claiming that the only acceptable songs for pious Christians were the gospels of the church. In gospel songs, they told her, music was the cherished vehicle of religious faith. As the writer Jesse Jackson (not related to the civil rights leader) said in his biography of Mahalia, Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord!, It was like choosing between the devil and God. You couldnt have it both ways. Mahalia made up her mind. When Little Haley (the nickname by which she was known as a child) tried out for the Baptist choir, she silenced the crowd by singing Im so glad, Im so glad, Im so glad, Ive been in the grave an rose again. She became known as the little girl with the big voice.

At 16, with only an eighth grade education but a strong

At a Glance

Born October 26, 1911, in New Orleans, LA; died of heart failure, January 27, 1972, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Johnny (a longshoreman, barber, and preacher) and Charity (a laundress and maid; maiden name, Clark) Jackson; married Isaac Hockenhull (an entrepreneur), 1936 (divorced); married Sigmund Galloway (divorced).

Started singing in small Baptist churches in New Orleans and Chicago; worked as a laundress; made first recording. Gods Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares, 1934; toured churches and gospel tents with composer Thomas A. Dorsey, 1939-44; opened a beauty salon and flower shop, c, 1944; recorded breakthrough single Move On Up a Little Higher on Decca records, 1946; performed on her own radio and television programs; performed at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1950; signed record contract with Columbia, 1954; performed throughout the U.S. and abroad. Participated in the civil rights movement, 1950-60s; performed I Been Buked and I Been Scorned as a preamble to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s I Have a Dream speech, Washington, D.C., 1963. Coauthored autobiography, Movin On Up, Hawthorne Books, 1966.

ambition to become a nurse, Jackson went to Chicago to live with her Aunt Hannah. In the northern city, to which thousands of southern blacks had migrated after the Civil War to escape segregation, she earned her keep by washing white peoples clothes for a dollar a day. After searching for the right church to join, a place whose music spoke to her, she ended up at the Greater Salem Baptist Church, to which her aunt belonged. At her audition for the choir, Jacksons thunderous voice rose above all the others. She was invited to be a soloist and started singing additionally with a quintet that performed at funerals and church services throughout the city. In 1934 she received $25 for her first recording, Gods Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares.

Tempted by the Blues

Though she sang traditional hymns and spirituals almost exclusively, Jackson continued to be fascinated by the blues. During the Great Depression, she knew she could earn more money singing the songs that her relatives considered profane and blasphemous. But when her beloved grandfather was struck down by a stroke and fell into a coma, Jackson vowed that if he recovered she would never even enter a theater again, much less sing songs of which he would disapprove. He did recover, and Mahalia never broke that vow. She wrote in her autobiography, Movin On Up : I feel God heard me and wanted me to devote my life to his songs and that is why he suffered my prayers to be answeredso that nothing would distract me from being a gospel singer.

Later in her career, Jackson continued to turn down lucrative requests to sing in nightclubsshe was offered as much as $25,000 a performance in Las Vegaseven when the club owners promised not to serve whisky while she performed. She never dismissed the blues as antireligious, like her relatives had done: it was simply a matter of the vow she had made, as well as a matter of inspiration. Theres no sense in my singing the blues, because I just dont feel it, she was quoted as saying in Harpers magazine in 1956. In the old, heart-felt songs, whether its the blues or gospel music, theres the distressed cry of a human being. But in the blues, its all despair; when youre done singing, youre still lonely and sorrowful. In the gospel songs, theres mourning and sorrow, too, but theres always hope and consolation to lift you above it.

Reigned as Gospel Queen

In 1939 Jackson started touring with renowned composer Thomas A. Dorsey. Together they visited churches and gospel tents around the country, and Jacksons reputation as a singer and interpreter of spirituals blossomed. She returned to Chicago after five years on the road and opened a beauty salon and a flower shop, both of which drew customers from the gospel and church communities. She continued to make records that brought her fairly little monetary reward. In 1946, while she was practicing in a recording studio, a representative from Decca Records overheard her sing an old spiritual she had learned as a child. He advised her to record it, and a few weeks later she did. Move On Up a Little Higher became her signature song. The recording sold 100,000 copies overnight and soon passed the two-million mark. [It] sold like wildfire, Alex Haley wrote in Readers Digest. Negro disk jockeys played it; Negro ministers praised it from their pulpits. When sales passed one million, the Negro press hailed Mahalia Jackson as the only Negro whom Negroes have made famous.

Jackson began touring again, only this time she did it not as the hand-to-mouth singer who had toured with Dorsey years before. She bought a Cadillac big enough for her to sleep in when she was performing in areas with hotels that failed to provide accommodations for blacks. She also stored food in the car so that when she visited the segregated south she wouldnt have to sit in the backs of restaurants. Soon the emotional and resonant singing of the Gospel Queen, as she had become known, began reaching and appealing to the white community as well. She appeared regularly on famous Chicagoan Studs Terkels radio show and was ultimately given her own radio and television programs.

On October 4, 1950, Jackson played to a packed house of blacks and whites at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She recounted in her autobiography how she reacted to the jubilant audience. I got carried away, too, and found myself singing on my knees for them. I had to straighten up and say, Now wed best remember were in Carnegie Hall and if we cut up too much, they might put us out. In her book, she also described a conversation with a reporter who asked her why she thought white people had taken to her traditionally black, church songs. She answered, Well, honey, maybe they tried drink and they tried psychoanalysis and now theyre going to try to rejoice with me a bit. Jackson ultimately became equally popular overseas and performed for royalty and adoring fans throughout France, England, Denmark, and Germany. One of the most rewarding concerts for her took place in Israel, where she sang before an audience of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Involved in the Civil Rights Movement

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jacksons attention turned to the growing civil rights movement in the United States. Although she had grown up on Water Street, where black and white families lived together peacefully, she was well aware of the injustice engendered by the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South. At the request of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson participated in the Montgomery bus boycott, the groundbreaking demonstration that had been prompted by Alabaman Rosa Parkss refusal to move from a bus seat reserved for whites. During the famous March on Washington in 1963, seconds before Dr. King delivered his celebrated I Have a Dream speech, Jackson sang the old inspirational, I Been Buked and I Been Scorned to over 200,000 people.

Jackson died in 1972, never having fulfilled her dream of building a nondenominational, nonsectarian temple in Chicago, where people could sing, celebrate life, and nurture the talents of children. Christian Century magazine reported that at the funeral, which was attended by over six thousand fans, singer Ella Fitzgerald described Jackson as one of our greatest ambassadors of love this wonderful woman who only comes once in a lifetime.

Jackson considered herself a simple woman: she enjoyed cooking for friends as much as marveling at landmarks around the world. But it was in her music that she found her spirit most eloquently expressed. She wrote in her autobiography: Gospel music is nothing but singing of good tidingsspreading the good news. It will last as long as any music because it is sung straight from the human heart. Join with me sometimewhether youre white or coloredand you will feel it for yourself. Its future is brighter than a daisy.

Selected discography

Amazing Grace , CBS Records, 1977.

Mahalia Jackson , Bella Musica, 1990.

Gospels, Spirituals, and Hymns (Gospel Spirit series), Columbia/Legacy, 1991.

Nobody Knows the Trouble Ive Seen , Vogue, 1991.

Best Loved Hymns of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , Columbia.

Bless This House , Columbia.

Come On, Children, Lets Sing , Columbia.

The Great Mahalia Jackson , Columbia.

Great Songs of Love and Faith , Columbia.

I Believe , Columbia.

In the Upper Room , Vogue.

Lets Pray Together , Columbia.

Mahalia Sings , Columbia.

Mahalia JacksonThe Worlds Greatest Gospel Singer and the Falls-Jones Ensemble , Columbia.

Mahalia Jacksons Greatest Hits , Columbia.

Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord , Columbia.

Newport, 1958 , Columbia.

The Power and the Glory , Columbia.

Silent Night , Columbia.

Sweet Little Jesus Boy , Columbia.

Youll Never Walk Alone , Columbia.

Sources

Books

Goreau, L., Just Mahalia, Baby , Pelican, 1975.

Jackson, Jesse, Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord! , G.K. Hall & Co., 1974.

Jackson, Mahalia, and Wylie, Evan McLeod, Movin On Up , Hawthorne Books, 1966.

Schwerin, Jules, Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel, Oxford, 1992.

Periodicals

Christian Century, March 1, 1972.

Ebony, March 1972, April 1972.

Harpers, August 1956.

Readers Digest, November 1961.

Saturday Review, September 27, 1958.

Isaac Rosen

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Jackson, Mahalia

Mahalia Jackson

Gospel singer

The Little Girl With the Big Voice

Tempted by the Blues

Reigned as Gospel Queen

Involved in Civil Rights Movement

Selected discography

Sources

Throughout her celebrated career, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson used her rich, forceful voice and inspiring interpretations of spirituals to move audiences around the world to tears of joy. In the early days, as a soloist and member of church choirs, she recognized the power of song as a means of gloriously reaffirming the faith of her flock. And later, as a world figure, her natural gift brought people of different religious and political convictions together to revel in the beauty of the gospels and to appreciate the warm spirit that underscored the way she lived her life.

The woman who would become known as the Gospel Queen was born in 1911 to a poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Jacksons Water Street home, a shotgun shack between the railroad tracks and the levee of the Mississippi River, was served by a pump that delivered water so dirty that cornmeal had to be used as a filtering agent. Jacksons father, like many blacks in the segregated south, held several jobs; he was a longshoreman, a barber, and a preacher at a small church. Her mother, a devout Baptist who died when Mahalia was five, took care of the six Jackson children and the house, using washed-up driftwood and planks of old barges to fuel the stove.

As a child, Mahalia was taken in by the sounds of New Orleans. She listened to the rhythms of the woodpeckers, the rumblings of the trains, the whistles of the steamboats, the songs of sailors and street peddlers. When the annual festival of Mardi Gras arrived, the city erupted in music. In her bedroom at night, the young Mahalia would quietly sing the songs of blues legend Bessie Smith.

The Little Girl With the Big Voice

But Jacksons close relatives disapproved of the blues, a music indigenous to southern black culture, saying it was decadent and claiming the only acceptable music for pious Christians were the gospels of the church. In gospel songs, they told her, music was the cherished vehicle of religious faith. As the writer Jesse Jackson (not related to the civil rights leader) said in his biography of Mahalia, Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord!, It was like choosing between the devil and God. You couldnt have it both ways. Mahalia made up her mind. When Little Haley (the nickname by which she was known as a child) tried out for the Baptist choir, she silenced the crowd by singing Im so glad, Im so glad, Im so glad Ive been in the grave an rose again. She became known as the little girl with the big voice.

At 16, with only an eighth grade education but a strong

For the Record

Born October 26, 1911, in New Orleans, LA; died of heart failure, January 27, 1972, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Johnny (a longshoreman, barber, and preacher) and Charity (a laundress and maid; maiden name, Clark) Jackson; married Isaac Hockenhull (an entrepreneur), 1936 (divorced); married Sigmund Galloway (divorced).

Started singing in small Baptist churches in New Orleans and Chicago; worked as a laundress; made first recording, Gods Gonna Separate the Wheat From the Tares, 1934; toured churches and gospel tents with composer Thomas A. Dorsey, 1939-44; opened a beauty salon and flower shop, c. 1944; recorded breakthrough single Move On Up a Little Higher, on Decca records, 1946; performed on her own radio and television programs; performed at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1950; signed record contract with Columbia, 1954; performed throughout the U.S. and abroad. Participated in the civil rights movement, 1950-60s; performed I Been Buked and I Been Scorned as a preamble to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s I Have a Dream speech, Washington D.C., 1963. Co-authored autobiography, Movin On Up, Hawthorne Books, 1966.

ambition to become a nurse, she went to Chicago to live with her Aunt Hannah. In the northern city, to which thousands of southern blacks had migrated after the Civil War to escape segregation, Jackson earned her keep by washing white peoples clothes for a dollar a day. After searching for the right church to join, a place whose music spoke to her, she ended up at the Greater Salem Baptist Church, to which her aunt belonged. At her audition for the choir, her thunderous voice rose above all the others. She was invited to be a soloist and started singing additionally with a quintet that performed at funerals and church services throughout the city. In 1934 she received $25 for her first recording, Gods Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares.

Tempted by the Blues

Though she sang traditional hymns and spirituals almost exclusively, Jackson continued to be fascinated by the blues. During the Great Depression, she knew she could earn more money singing the songs that her relatives considered profane and blasphemous. But when her beloved grandfather was struck down by a stroke and fell into a coma, Jackson vowed that if he recovered she would never even enter a theater again, much less sing songs of which he would disapprove. He did recover, and Mahalia never broke that vow. She wrote in her autobiography, Movin On Up: I feel God heard me and wanted me to devote my life to his songs and that is why he suffered my prayers to be answeredso that nothing would distract me from being a gospel singer.

Later in her career, Jackson continued to turn down lucrative requests to sing in nightclubsshe was offered as much as $25,000 a performance in Las Vegaseven when the club owners promised not to serve whisky while she performed. She never dismissed the blues as antireligious, like her relatives had done: it was simply a matter of the vow she had made, as well as a matter of inspiration. Theres no sense in my singing the blues, because I just dont feel it, she was quoted as saying in Harpers magazine in 1956. In the old, heart-felt songs, whether its the blues or gospel music, theres the distressed cry of a human being. But in the blues, its all despair; when youre done singing, youre still lonely and sorrowful. In the gospel songs, theres mourning and sorrow, too, but theres always hope and consolation to lift you above it.

Reigned as Gospel Queen

In 1939 Jackson started touring with renowned composer Thomas A. Dorsey. Together they visited churches and gospel tents around the country, and Jacksons reputation as a singer and interpreter of spirituals blossomed. She returned to Chicago after five years on the road and opened a beauty salon and a flower shop, both of which drew customers from the gospel and church communities. She continued to make records that brought her fairly little monetary reward. In 1946, while she was practicing in a recording studio, a representative from Decca Records overheard her sing an old spiritual she had learned as a child. He advised her to record it, and a few weeks later she did. Move On Up a Little Higher became her signature song. The recording sold 100,000 copies overnight and soon passed the two-million mark. [It] sold like wildfire, Alex Haley wrote in Readers Digest. Negro disk jockeys played it; Negro ministers praised it from their pulpits. When sales passed one million, the Negro press hailed Mahalia Jackson as the only Negro whom Negroes have made famous.

Jackson began touring again, only this time she did it not as the hand-to-mouth singer who had toured with Dorsey years before. She bought a Cadillac big enough for her to sleep in when she was performing in areas with hotels that failed to provide accommodations for blacks. She also stored food in the car so that when she visited the segregated south she wouldnt have to sit in the backs of restaurants. Soon the emotional and resonant singing of the Gospel Queen, as she had become known, began reaching and appealing to the white community as well. She appeared regularly on famous Chicagoan Studs Terkels radio show and was ultimately given her own radio and television programs.

On October 4, 1950, Jackson played to a packed house of blacks and whites at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She recounted in her autobiography how she reacted to the jubilant audience. I got carried away, too, and found myself singing on my knees for them. I had to straighten up and say, Now wed best remember were in Carnegie Hall and if we cut up too much, they might put us out. In her book, she also described a conversation with a reporter who asked her why she thought white people had taken to her traditionally black church songs. She answered, Well, honey, maybe they tried drink and they tried psychoanalysis and now theyre going to try to rejoice with me a bit. Jackson ultimately became equally popular overseas and performed for royalty and adoring fans throughout France, England, Denmark, and Germany. One of the most rewarding concerts for her took place in Israel, where she sang before an audience of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Involved in Civil Rights Movement

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jacksons attention turned to the growing civil rights movement in the United States. Although she had grown up on Water Street, where black and white families lived together peacefully, she was well aware of the injustice engendered by the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South. At the request of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jackson participated in the Montgomery bus boycott, the ground-breaking demonstration that had been prompted by Alabaman Rosa Parkss refusal to move from a bus seat reserved for whites. During the Washington protest march in 1963, seconds before Dr. King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech, Jackson sang the old inspirational, I Been Buked and I Been Scorned to over 200,000 people.

Jackson died in 1972, never having fulfilled her dream of building a nondenominational, nonsectarian temple in Chicago, where people could sing, celebrate life, and nurture the talents of children. Christian Century magazine reported that at the funeral, which was attended by over six thousand fans, singer Ella Fitzgerald described Jackson as one of our greatest ambassadors of lovethis wonderful woman who only comes once in a lifetime.

Jackson considered herself a simple woman: she enjoyed cooking for friends as much as marveling at landmarks around the world. But it was in her music that she found her spirit most eloquently expressed. She wrote in her autobiography: Gospel music is nothing but singing of good tidingsspreading the good news. It will last as long as any music because it is sung straight from the human heart. Join with me sometimewhether youre white or coloredand you will feel it for yourself. Its future is brighter than a daisy.

Selected discography

Amazing Grace, CBS Records, 1977.

Mahalia Jackson, Bella Musica, 1990.

Gospels, Spirituals, and Hymns (Gospel Spirit series), Columbia/Legacy, 1991.

Nobody Knows the Trouble Ive Seen, Vogue, 1991.

Best Loved Hymns of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Columbia.

Bless This House, Columbia.

Come On, Children, Lets Sing, Columbia.

The Great Mahalia Jackson, Columbia.

Great Songs of Love and Faith, Columbia.

I Believe, Columbia.

In the Upper Room, Vogue.

Lets Pray Together, Columbia.

Mahalia Sings, Columbia.

Mahalia Jackson The Worlds Greatest Gospel Singer and the Falls-Jones Ensemble, Columbia.

Mahalia Jacksons Greatest Hits, Columbia.

Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord, Columbia.

Newport, 1958, Columbia.

The Power and the Glory, Columbia.

Silent Night, Columbia.

Sweet Little Jesus Boy, Columbia.

Youll Never Walk Alone, Columbia.

Sources

Books

Goreau, L, Just Mahalia, Baby, Pelican, 1975.

Jackson, Jesse, Make a Joyful Noise Unto The Lord!, G.K. Hall & Co., 1974.

Jackson, Mahalia, and Wylie, Evan McLeod, Movin On Up, Hawthorne Books, 1966.

Periodicals

Christian Century, March 1, 1972.

Ebony, March 1972, April 1972.

Harpers, August 1956.

Readers Digest, November 1961.

Saturday Review, September 27, 1958.

Isaac Rosen

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Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

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  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
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Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson

Throughout her celebrated career, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) used her rich, forceful voice and inspiring interpretations of spirituals to move audiences around the world to tears of joy. In the early days, as a soloist and member of church choirs, she recognized the power of song as a means of gloriously reaffirming the faith of her flock. And later, as a world figure, her natural gift brought people of different religious and political convictions together to revel in the beauty of the gospels and to appreciate the warm spirit that underscored the way she lived her life.

The woman who would become known as the "Gospel Queen" was born on October 26, 1911 into a poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Jacksons' Water Street home, a shack between the railroad tracks and the levee of the Mississippi River, was served by a pump that delivered water so dirty that cornmeal had to be used as a filtering agent. Jackson's father, like many blacks in the segregated south, held several jobs; he was a long-shoreman, a barber, and a preacher at a small church. Her mother, a devout Baptist who died when Mahalia was five, took care of the six Jackson children and the house, using washed-up driftwood and planks from old barges to fuel the stove.

Sounds of New Orleans

As a child, Mahalia was taken in by the sounds of New Orleans. She listened to the rhythms of the woodpeckers, the rumblings of the trains, the whistles of the steamboats, the songs of sailors and street peddlers. When the annual festival of Mardi Gras arrived, the city erupted in music. In her bedroom at night, young Mahalia would quietly sing the songs of blues legend Bessie Smith.

But Jackson's close relatives disapproved of the blues, a music indigenous to southern black culture, saying it was decadent and claiming that the only acceptable songs for pious Christians were the gospels of the church. In gospel songs, they told her, music was the cherished vehicle of religious faith. As the writer Jesse Jackson (not related to the civil rights leader) said in his biography of Mahalia, Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord!, "It was like choosing between the devil and God. You couldn't have it both ways." Mahalia made up her mind. When Little Haley (the nickname by which she was known as a child) tried out for the Baptist choir, she silenced the crowd by singing "I'm so glad, I'm so glad, I'm so glad I've been in the grave an' rose again.… "She became known as "the little girl with the big voice."

At 16, with only an eighth grade education but a strong ambition to become a nurse, Jackson went to Chicago to live with her Aunt Hannah. In the northern city, to which thousands of southern blacks had migrated after the Civil War to escape segregation, she earned a living by washing white people's clothes for a dollar a day. After searching for the right church to join, a place whose music spoke to her, she ended up at the Greater Salem Baptist Church, to which her aunt belonged. At her audition for the choir, Jackson's thunderous voice rose above all the others. She was invited to be a soloist and started singing with a quintet that performed at funerals and church services throughout the city. In 1934, she received $25 for her first recording, "God's Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares."

Though she sang traditional hymns and spirituals almost exclusively, Jackson continued to be fascinated by the blues. During the Great Depression, she knew she could earn more money singing the songs that her relatives considered profane and blasphemous. But when her beloved grandfather was struck down by a stroke and fell into a coma, Jackson vowed that if he recovered she would never even enter a theater again, much less sing songs of which he would disapprove. He did recover, and Mahalia never broke that vow. She wrote in her autobiography, Movin' On Up: "I feel God heard me and wanted me to devote my life to his songs and that is why he suffered my prayers to be answered-so that nothing would distract me from being a gospel singer."

Later in her career, Jackson continued to turn down lucrative requests to sing in nightclubs-she was offered as much as $25,000 a performance in Las Vegas-even when the club owners promised not to serve whisky while she performed. She never dismissed the blues as anti-religious, like her relatives had done: it was simply a matter of the vow she had made, as well as a matter of inspiration. "There's no sense in my singing the blues, because I just don't feel it," she was quoted as saying in Harper's magazine in 1956. "In the old, heart-felt songs, whether it's the blues or gospel music, there's the distressed cry of a human being. But in the blues, it's all despair; when you're done singing, you're still lonely and sorrowful. In the gospel songs, there's mourning and sorrow, too, but there's always hope and consolation to lift you above it."

Singing Career Blossomed

In 1939, Jackson started touring with renowned composer Thomas A. Dorsey. Together they visited churches and "gospel tents" around the country, and Jackson's reputation as a singer and interpreter of spirituals blossomed. She returned to Chicago after five years on the road and opened a beauty salon and a flower shop, both of which drew customers from the gospel and church communities. She continued to make records that brought her fairly little monetary reward. In 1946, while she was practicing in a recording studio, a representative from Decca Records overheard her sing an old spiritual she had learned as a child. He advised her to record it, and a few weeks later she did. "Move On Up a Little Higher" became her signature song. The recording sold 100,000 copies overnight and soon passed the two million dollar mark. "It sold like wildfire," Alex Haley wrote in Reader's Digest. "Negro disk jockeys played it; Negro ministers praised it from their pulpits. When sales passed one million, the Negro press hailed Mahalia Jackson as 'the only Negro whom Negroes have made famous."'

Jackson began touring again, only this time she did it not as the hand-to-mouth singer who had toured with Dorsey years before. She bought a Cadillac big enough for her to sleep in when she was performing in areas with hotels that failed to provide accommodations for blacks. She also stored food in the car so that when she visited the segregated South she wouldn't have to sit in the backs of restaurants. Soon the emotional and resonant singing of the "Gospel Queen," as she had become known, began reaching the white community as well. She appeared regularly on Studs Terkel's radio show and was ultimately given her own radio and television programs.

On October 4, 1950, Jackson played to a packed house of blacks and whites at New York's Carnegie Hall. She recounted in her autobiography how she reacted to the jubilant audience. "I got carried away, too, and found myself singing on my knees for them. I had to straighten up and say, 'Now we'd best remember we're in Carnegie Hall and if we cut up too much, they might put us out."' In her book, she also described a conversation with a reporter who asked her why she thought white people had taken to her traditionally black, church songs. She answered, "Well, honey, maybe they tried drink and they tried psychoanalysis and now they're going to try to rejoice with me a bit." Jackson ultimately became equally popular overseas and performed for royalty and adoring fans throughout France, England, Denmark, and Germany. One of her most rewarding concerts took place in Israel, where she sang before an audience of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Participated in Civil Rights Struggles

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jackson's attention turned to the growing civil rights movement in the United States. Although she had grown up on Water Street, where black and white families lived together peacefully, she was well aware of the injustice engendered by the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South. At the request of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson participated in the Montgomery bus boycott. This action had been prompted by Rosa Parks's refusal to move from a bus seat reserved for whites. During the famous March on Washington in 1963, seconds before Dr. King delivered his celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech, Jackson sang the old inspirational, "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned" to over 200,000 people.

Jackson died in Chicago on January 27, 1972, never having fulfilled her dream of building a nondenominational temple, where people could sing, celebrate life, and nurture the talents of children. Christian Century magazine reported that her funeral was attended by over six thousand fans. Singer Ella Fitzgerald described Jackson as "one of our greatest ambassadors of love … this wonderful woman who only comes once in a lifetime."

Jackson considered herself a simple woman: she enjoyed cooking for friends as much as marveling at landmarks around the world. But it was in her music that she found her spirit most eloquently expressed. She wrote in her autobiography: "Gospel music is nothing but singing of good tidings-spreading the good news. It will last as long as any music because it is sung straight from the human heart. Join with me sometime-whether you're white or colored-and you will feel it for yourself. Its future is brighter than a daisy."

Further Reading

Goreau, L., Just Mahalia, Baby, Pelican, 1975.

Jackson, Jesse, Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord!, G.K. Hall, 1974.

Jackson, Mahalia, and Wylie, Evan McLeod, Movin' On Up, Hawthorne Books, 1966.

Schwerin, Jules, Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel, Oxford, 1992.

Christian Century, March 1, 1972.

Ebony, March 1972, April 1972.

Harper's, August 1956.

Reader's Digest, November 1961.

Saturday Review, September 27, 1958. □

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Jackson, Mahalia

Mahalia Jackson (məhăl´yə), 1911–72, American gospel singer, b. New Orleans. She sang in church choirs during her childhood. Moving (1927) to Chicago, she worked at various menial jobs and sang in churches and at revival meetings, attracting attention for her vigorous, joyful gospel style. As her reputation grew she made numerous recordings, and she gained national recognition with her Carnegie Hall debut in 1950. Jackson toured abroad and appeared on radio and at jazz festivals, refusing to sing the blues in favor of more hopeful devotional songs. At Newport, R.I., in 1958 she sang in Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige. Deeply committed to the civil-rights movement, she was closely associated with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

See her autobiography (1966); studies by P. Oliver (1968) and J. Jackson (1974).

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Jackson, Mahalia

Jackson, Mahalia

October 26, 1911
January 27, 1972


When sixteen-year-old Mahala Jackson (as she was named at birth) arrived in Chicago in 1927, she had already developed the vocal style that was to win her the title of "world's greatest gospel singer." Though born into an extremely religious New Orleans family, she spent hours listening to the recordings of blues singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and could be found at every parade that passed her neighborhood of Pinching Town in New Orleans.

In later life she would admit that although she was a thoroughgoing Baptist, the Sanctified church next door to her house had had a powerful influence on her singing, for although the members had neither choir nor organ, they sang accompanied by a drum, tambourine, and steel triangle. They clapped and stomped their feet and sang with their whole bodies. She recalled that they had a powerful beat she believed was retained from slavery, and once stated, "I believe blues and jazz and even rock 'n' roll stuff got their beat from the Sanctified church."

Jackson's style was set early on: From Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey she borrowed a deep and dark resonance that complemented her own timbre; from the Baptist church she inherited the moaning and bending of final notes in phrases; and from the Sanctified church she adopted a full-throated tone, delivered with a holy beat. Surprisingly, although gospel in its early stages was being sung in New Orleans, none of her vocal influences came from gospel singers.

Upon arriving in Chicago with her Aunt Hannah, Jackson joined the Johnson Singers, an a cappella quartet. The group quickly established a reputation as one of Chicago's better gospel groups, appearing regularly in concerts and gospel-song plays with Jackson in the lead. In time Mahalia, as she now chose to call herself, became exclusively a soloist. In 1935 Thomas A. Dorsey persuaded her to become his official song demonstrator, a position she held until 1945. Dorsey later stated that Jackson "had a lot of soul in her singing: she meant what she sang."

Although she made her first recordings in 1937 for Decca, it was not until 1946, when she switched to the small Apollo label, that Jackson established a national reputation in the African-American community. Her 1947 recording of "Move On Up a Little Higher" catapulted her to the rank of superstar and won her one of the first two gold records for record sales in gospel music. (Clara Ward won the other.) Accompanied on this recording by her longtime pianist, Mildred Falls, Jackson demonstrated her wide range and ability to improvise on melody and rhythm. As a result of this recording, she became the official soloist for the National Baptist Convention and began touring throughout the United States. She was the first gospel singer to be given a network radio show when, in 1954, CBS signed her for a weekly show on which she was the host and star. In the same year she moved to the Columbia label, becoming a crossover gospel singer through her first recording on that label, "Rusty Old Halo." Several triumphs followed in rapid succession. She appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Dinah Shore television shows, at Carnegie Hall, and in 1958 for the first time at the Newport Jazz Festival. Tours throughout the world began, with Jackson garnering accolades in France, Germany, and Italy.

A crowning achievement of Jackson's was the invitation to sing at one of the inaugural parties of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. In 1963 she was asked to sing just before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was to deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington. Her rendition of "I've Been Buked and I've Been Scorned" contributed to the success of King's speech. During her career, she appeared in such films as St. Louis Blues (1958), Imitation of Life (1959) and Jazz on a Summer's Day (1958), sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" at the funeral of Dr. King, and recorded with Duke Ellington. Toward the end of her life, she suffered from heart trouble but continued to sing until her death in Chicago. Jackson appeared on a United States postage stamp in 1998.

See also Blues, The; Gospel Music

Bibliography

Goreau, Laurraine. Just Mahalia, Baby: The Mahalia Jackson Story. Gretna, La: Pelican, 1984.

Heilbut, Tony. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. Revised, New York: Limelight Editions; Distributed by Harper & Row, 1985.

Jackson, Mahalia, and E. M. Wylie. Movin' On Up. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1966.

horace clarence boyer (1996)

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Jackson, Mahalia

Jackson, Mahalia

Jackson, Mahalia, fervent American gospel singer; b. New Orleans, Oct. 26, 1911; d. Evergreen Park, III., Jan. 27, 1972. Widely considered the best gospel singer of her generation, Jackson was certainly the best known, with a career that embraced radio, television, and film as well as a major-label record contract. Such incursions into the secular realm made her a controversial figure among gospel fans, but with her impassioned contralto she spread the influence of gospel far beyond its previously narrow boundaries.

Jackson was the illegitimate daughter of Johnny Jackson Jr., a stevedore who also preached at a church in New Orleans, and Charity Clark. She sang first at her father’s church. Following the death of her mother when she was five, she was raised by an aunt. In November 1927 she moved to Chicago to live with another aunt and began to sing with the choir at the Greater Salem Baptist Church while supporting herself as a domestic. She became a member of the Johnson Gospel Singers, a professional group, and eventually performed solo while working as a hairdresser; later she ran a beauty salon and a flower shop.

Jackson became a song demonstrator for gospel songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey in 1937. That same year she was signed to Decca Records and made her recording debut in May. She married Isaac Hockenhull, a mail carrier, in 1938; the marriage ended in divorce. She returned to recording in October 1946 for Apollo Records. An Apollo session in September 1947 produced a recording of “Move on Up a Little Higher,” which was released in January 1948 and sold a reported two million copies. She made her Carnegie Hall debut in October 1950 and toured Europe in 1952.

Jackson signed to the Columbia label of CBS Records in 1954; she also had her own weekly series on the CBS radio network, The Mahalia Jackson Show, from September 1954 to February 1955; and she made frequent appearances on the television program In Town Tonight on the local CBS affiliate in Chicago in the fall of 1954. With these activities she moved beyond the religious community even while continuing to sing gospel music. She began to make appearances on national television, notably The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, and performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957. Her recording of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand” (music and lyrics by Geoff Love, adapted from a traditional song) reached the singles chart in April 1958, and the same month she appeared in the film St. Louis Blues, a biography of W. C. Handy starring Nat “King” Cole. She returned to the Newport Jazz Festival that summer, performing with Duke Ellington, and in October she was a guest on the television special The Bing Crosby Show. She appeared in the film Imitation of Life, released in April 1959.

In March 1960 the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival featuring Jackson, was released. She won the first Grammy Award to be given out for Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording in 1961 for her album Everytime I Feel the Spirit. Her album Sweet Little Jesus Boy, a Christmas recording, reached the pop charts in January 1962, and in the Christmas season of 1962, Apollo Records reissued her 1950 recording of “Silent Night, Holy Night” (music by Franz Gruber, lyrics by Joseph Mohr) for a chart entry; it made the Christmas charts in 1964, 1967, 1968, 1969, and 1973. Jackson won her second consecutive Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording Grammy in 1962 for the album Great Songs of Love and Faith. She was nominated again in 1963 for the album Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord.

Jackson married Sigmund Galloway, a musician, in 1964; they divorced in 1967. In 1969 she was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance for the LP Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. She toured Europe in the fall of 1971 but was hospitalized in Munich, West Germany, in October for coronary heart disease. She died of a heart seizure at 60 in 1972.

Jackson’s continuing popularity led to a series of posthumous record releases and awards. The album How I Got Over, which contained recordings from her radio broadcasts of 1954 and television appearances of 1963, won the Grammy Award in 1976 for Best Soul Gospel Performance; I Sing Because I’m Happy was nominated for the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word, Documentary, or Drama Recording.

Writings

With E. Wylie, Movin’ on Up (N.Y., 1966).

Bibliography

J. Cornell and V. Mays, M. J.: Queen of Gospel Song (Champaign, III., 1974); K. McDearmon, M., Gospel Singer (N.Y., 1976); J. Jackson, Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord! The Life of M.J., Queen of Gospel Singers (N.Y., 1974); L. Goreau, Just M., Baby (Gretna, La., 1975); E. Witter, M. J.. (Milford, Mich., 1985); C. Wolfe, M. J.. (N.Y., 1990); D. Donloe, M. J. (Los Angeles, 1992); J. Schwerin, Got to Tell It: M. J., Queen of Gospel (N.Y., 1992).

—William Ruhlmann

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