Today’s Classic is Mahalia Jackson.
Mahalia Jackson (/məˈheɪljə/ mə-HAYL-yə; October 26, 1911 – January 27, 1972) was an American gospel singer. Possessing a powerful contralto voice, she was referred to as “The Queen of Gospel”. Jackson became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.
“I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free,” Jackson once said about her choice of gospel, adding, “It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.”
In 1927, at the age of sixteen, Jackson moved from the south to Chicago, Illinois, in the midst of the Great Migration. After her first Sunday church service, where she had given an impromptu performance of her favorite song, “Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, Gabriel”, she was invited to join the Greater Salem Baptist Church Choir. She began touring the city’s churches and surrounding areas with the Johnson Gospel Singers, one of the earliest professional gospel groups. In 1929, Jackson met the composer Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the Father of Gospel Music. He gave her musical advice, and in the mid-1930s they began a fourteen-year association of touring, with Jackson singing Dorsey’s songs in church programs and at conventions. His “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” became her signature song.
In 1936, Jackson married Isaac Lanes Grey Hockenhull (“Ike”), a graduate of Fisk University and Tuskegee Institute, who was 10 years her senior. Mahalia refused to sing secular music, a pledge she would keep throughout her professional life. She was frequently offered money to do so and she divorced Isaac in 1941 because of his unrelenting pressure on her to sing secular music and his addiction to gambling on racehorses.
In 1931, Jackson recorded “You Better Run, Run, Run”. Not much is known about this recording and it is impossible to find. Biographer Laurraine Goreau cites that it was also around this time she added ‘i’ to her name, changing it from Mahala to Mahalia, pronounced /məˈheɪliə/. At age 26, Mahalia’s second set of records was recorded on May 21, 1937 under the Decca Coral label, accompanied by Estelle Allen (piano), in order: “God’s Gonna Separate The Wheat From The Tares”, “My Lord”, “Keep Me Everyday”, and “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away”. Financially, these were not successful, and Decca let her go.
In 1947, she signed up with the Apollo label, and in 1948 recorded the William Herbert Brewster song “Move On Up a Little Higher”, a recording so popular that stores could not stock enough copies of it to meet demand, selling an astonishing eight million copies. (The song was later honored with the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998). The success of this record rocketed Jackson to fame in the U.S. and soon after in Europe. During this time she toured as a concert artist, appearing more frequently in concert halls and less often in churches. As a consequence of this change in her venues, her arrangements expanded from piano and organ to orchestral accompaniments.
Other recordings received wide praise, including: “Let the Power of the Holy Ghost Fall on Me” (1949), which won the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Disque; and “Silent Night, Holy Night”, which became one of the best-selling singles in the history of Norway. When Jackson sang “Silent Night” on Denmark’s national radio, more than twenty thousand requests for copies poured in. Other recordings on the Apollo label included “He Knows My Heart” (1946), “Amazing Grace” (1947), “Tired” (1947), “I Can Put My Trust in Jesus” (1949), “Walk with Me” (1949), “Let the Power of the Holy Ghost Fall on Me” (1949), “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1950), “The Lord’s Prayer” (1950), “How I Got Over” (1951), “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (1951), “I Believe” (1953), “Didn’t It Rain” (1953), “Hands of God” (1953), and “Nobody Knows” (1954).
In 1950, Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall when Joe Bostic produced the “Negro Gospel and Religious Music Festival”. She started touring Europe in 1952 and was hailed by critics as the “world’s greatest gospel singer”. In Paris she was called the Angel of Peace, and throughout the continent she sang to capacity audiences. The tour, however, had to be cut short due to exhaustion. Jackson began a radio series on CBS and signed to Columbia Records in 1954. A writer for Down Beat music magazine stated on November 17, 1954: “It is generally agreed that the greatest spiritual singer now alive is Mahalia Jackson.” Her debut album for Columbia was The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer, recorded in 1954, followed by a Christmas album called Sweet Little Jesus Boy, and Bless This House in 1956.
With her mainstream success, Jackson was criticized by some gospel purists who complained about her hand-clapping and foot-stomping and about her bringing “jazz into the church”. Jackson had many notable accomplishments during this period, including her performance of many songs in the 1958 film St. Louis Blues, and singing “Trouble of the World” in 1959’s Imitation of Life; recording with Percy Faith. When Mahalia Jackson recorded The Power and the Glory with Faith, the orchestra arched their bows to honor her in solemn recognition of her great voice. She was the main attraction in the first gospel music showcase at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, which was organized by Joe Bostic and recorded by the Voice of America, and performed again in 1958 (Newport 1958). She was also present at the opening night of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music in December 1957. In 1961, she sang at U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. She recorded her second Christmas album Silent Night (Songs for Christmas) in 1962. By this time, she had also become a familiar face to British television viewers as a result of short films of her performing that were occasionally shown. Historian Noel Serrano stated: “God touched the vocal chords of this Great Woman and placed a special elixir to sing for His honor and Glory!”
At the March on Washington in 1963, she sang in front of 250,000 people “How I Got Over” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned”. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech there. She also sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at his funeral after he was assassinated in 1968. Jackson sang to crowds at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and was accompanied by “wonderboy preacher” Al Sharpton. She toured Europe again in 1961 (Recorded Live in Europe 1961), 1963–1964, 1967, 1968 and 1969. In 1970, she performed for Liberian President William Tubman.
Jackson’s last album was What The World Needs Now (1969). The next year, in 1970, Jackson and Louis Armstrong performed “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” together. She ended her career in 1971 with a concert in Germany, and when she returned, made one of her final television appearances on The Flip Wilson Show. Jackson devoted much of her time and energy to helping others. She established the Mahalia Jackson Scholarship Foundation for young people who wanted to attend college. For her efforts in helping international understanding, she received the Silver Dove Award. Chicago remained her home until the end. She opened a beauty parlor and a florist shop with her earnings, while also investing in real estate ($100,000 a year at her peak).
Civil Rights Movement
Jackson was known to have played an important role during the civil rights movement. In August 1956, she met Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the National Baptist Convention. A few months later, both King and Abernathy contacted her about coming to Montgomery, Alabama to sing at a rally to raise money for the bus boycott. They also hoped that she would inspire the people who were getting discouraged with the boycott.
Despite death threats, Mahalia Jackson agreed to sing in Montgomery. Her concert was on December 6, 1956. By then, the US Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that bus segregation was unconstitutional. In Montgomery, the ruling was not yet put into effect, so the bus boycott continued. At this concert she sang “I’ve Heard of a City called Heaven”, “Move On Up a Little Higher”, and “Silent Night”. There was a good turnout at the concert and they were happy with the amount of money raised. But when she returned to the Abernathy’s home, it was bombed. The boycott finally ended on December 21, 1956 when federal injunctions were served, forcing Montgomery to comply with the court ruling.
Although she was internationally known and had moved up to the northern states, she still encountered racial prejudice. One account of this was when she tried to buy a house in Chicago. Everywhere she went, the white owners and real estate agents would turn her away, claiming that the house had already been sold or that they changed their mind about selling. When she finally found a house, the neighbors were not happy. Shots were fired at her windows and she had to contact the police for protection. White families started moving out and black families started moving in. Everything remained the same in her neighborhood except for the skin color of the residents.
King and Abernathy continued to protest segregation. In 1957, they founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The first major event sponsored by the SCLC was the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C. on May 17, 1957, the third anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. From this point forward, she appeared often with King, singing before his speeches and for SCLC fundraisers. In a 1962 SCLC press release, King wrote that Jackson had “appeared on numerous programs that helped the struggle in the South, but now she has indicated that she wants to be involved on a regular basis”. Jesse Jackson said that when King called on her, she never refused, traveling with him to the deepest parts of the segregated south.
Jackson performed “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. She also sang “Precious Lord” at his funeral in 1968.
Jackson said she hoped her music could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country”. She also contributed financially to the movement.