A Childhood in New Orleans
Born in New Orleans in 1911, Mahalia Jackson grew up in a shotgun home shared by 13 people. Raised by her Aunt Duke after her mother died in 1917, economic circumstances forced Jackson to quit school and work at home when she was in fourth grade. Her earliest influences were the sights and sounds of Uptown New Orleans: banana steamships on the Mississippi River, acorns roasting in Audubon Park, hot jazz bands, the beat-driven music of the Sanctified Church, and Bessie Smith’s bluesy voice wafting from her cousin Fred’s record player. But Jackson found her greatest inspiration at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, where she sang on Wednesday, Friday, and four times on Sunday. Even at age 12, her powerful voice could be heard all the way to the end of the block. “You going to be famous in this world and walk with kings and queens,” said her Aunt Bell, predicting an illustrious future for a voice that would change the face of American music, empower the Civil Rights movement, and bring Mahalia Jackson worldwide renown.
Jackson was 16 when she joined her Aunt Hannah on board the Illinois Central Railroad. Like many African Americans in the South, she moved to Chicago for better opportunities, but she found only low-paying domestic work during her first several years there. Ever lifting her spirit through church and its music, Jackson joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church and began touring with the Johnson Brothers, Chicago’s first professional gospel group. As a “fish and bread” singer, Jackson performed for donations in storefront churches, basement halls, and other makeshift venues. Later, she made tickets for her appearances — ten cents each — and found work singing at funerals and revivals. During this period, Jackson made a vow that she would live a pure life, free of secular entertainment. She promised to use her voice for spiritual song — a promise that she kept.
Seeds of Success
By 1937, Jackson had made her first set of recordings with Decca Records. Her first side, “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares,” only saw moderate commercial success. Despite her A&R representative’s suggestions, she refused to make a blues record, remembering her pledge to sing only gospel music. As a result, she lost her contract with Decca. Then married to her first husband, Ike, Jackson decided to buy real estate and invest in her own business, a beauty shop. High-paying offers for work in the theater rolled in, and though Ike protested, Jackson kept her vow. Gospel music was becoming popular in Chicago churches, and Jackson was building a community of gospel musicians. Among these was Thomas Dorsey, a talented Atlanta-born African American composer and pianist who had migrated north with a vision for gospel music. He chose Jackson out of all the singers in Chicago to be his partner, and, as a traveling act, the two ushered in the Golden Age of Gospel.
Radio, Touring, and Television
In 1948, Mahalia Jackson recorded “Move On Up a Little Higher” for Apollo Records, selling one million copies in the United States. A white radio DJ, Studs Terkel, helped to popularize the recording, playing it alongside the hit rhythm and blues records of the day. With her riveting contralto, Jackson was as captivating as popular blues singers, and gospel’s bouncing beat proved just as danceable, even to those who didn’t go to church. Jackson began to tour extensively. And though she battled racism and segregation, especially in the South, she could collect hundreds of dollars for a single concert. In 1950, she was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall as the headlining act at the First Negro Gospel Music Festival, a monumental event in the history of gospel music.
Radio, Touring, and Television
In 1954, Jackson signed with Columbia Records and recorded Bless This House. The first of her 30 albums for the label, it included traditional numbers such as “Down By the Riverside,” two compositions by her old friend Thomas Dorsey, and a spiritual version of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Jackson’s Colombia deal included a national radio show out of Chicago, The Mahalia Jackson Show, the first all-gospel radio hour. The show drew a tremendous positive response, but when Jackson suggested a television series to CBS-TV, executives explained that national sponsors would not take a chance on a “Negro show,” fearing that their sales would drop in Southern markets. After twenty weeks, CBS cancelled Jackson’s radio show because it failed to secure a national sponsor.
The Queen of Gospel Song
Jackson found wild mainstream success in the late ’50s, touring the world and recording several successful albums for Columbia. Though she could not convince a television network to grant her a show of her own, Jackson did appear as a guest on many “white” variety shows including those hosted by Dinah Shore, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan. She also performed at dozens of monumental events, including her first European tour and an appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which yielded the classic album Live at Newport 1958. In the same year, Jackson collaborated with popular orchestral arranger Percy Faith to record the hit album The Power and the Glory, and contributed vocals to Duke Ellington’s suite, Black, Brown, and Beige. By 1960, Jackson was an international star. Her congregational call-and-response style, combined with her soulful, voluminous voice, made gospel music popular all over the world. But back home, Jackson’s financial success brought racist backlash. She received violent threats from neighbors who did not want an African American woman to live on the quiet street in the Chicago suburbs where she had purchased a home.
Mahalia Jackson’s struggle with racism had urged her to get involved in the Civil Rights movement at its onset. With the Montgomery bus boycott, the movement had begun to unfold quickly. As early as 1956, Civil Rights leaders called on Jackson to lend both her powerful voice and financial support to the rallies, marches, and demonstrations. Boycott leader Reverend Ralph Abernathy invited Jackson to Montgomery to sing at the first anniversary of Rosa Parks’ historic act. Braving hecklers, Klansmen, and widespread violence, Jackson rolled into Montgomery on a train. At the station, Abernathy greeted her with another young preacher named Martin Luther King. Though she was afraid for her safety, King’s speeches inspired her, and the two became friends.
By the early 1960s, gospel music and spirituals had become the inseparable soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement. Their greatest performer, Mahalia Jackson, had empowered the downtrodden masses with songs of strength and solidarity, inciting real change in America’s social and political structure. At the second March on Washington in 1963, the largest demonstration in the history of the nation, Jackson opened her set with “I’ve Been ‘Buked,” at King’s request. When it was King’s turn to speak, some witnesses say, Jackson leaned forward and whispered, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” urging him to deliver the most famous speech of the Civil Rights movement. Throughout the era, Jackson sang at monumental events such as President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and funeral. She also sang at King’s funeral in 1968, and recorded an album of his favorite songs, The Best Loved Hymns of Dr. M. L. King.
By 1969, with Kennedy, King, and many of her other beneficiaries deceased, Jackson had retired from the political front. She had battled illness for years. Still touring almost to the end, she visited Africa, the Caribbean, Japan, and India, where she met Indira Ghandi, an instant fan. Jackson’s final performance was in Germany in 1971. Soon after an operation on her pained abdomen, she died of heart failure in January 1972, at the age of 60. Hundreds of musicians and politicians attended Jackson’s two funerals. In Chicago, Aretha Franklin performed “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and Coretta King praised Jackson for being “black and proud and beautiful.” Mourning continued at a second funeral in New Orleans, where thousands of hometown admirers gathered to honor the greatest gospel singer of all time, a woman who had conquered poverty, racism, and hardship to win fans and friends all over the world.