The Talented Mahalia Jackson Part One
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”. She 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.
Jackson c. 1962, photographed by Carl Van Vechten
October 26, 1911
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
January 27, 1972 (aged 60)
Evergreen Park, Illinois, U.S.
Decca Coral, Apollo, Columbia
* Albertina Walker Aretha Franklin Dorothy Norwood Della Reese Cissy Houston Milton Brunson
“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.”
She was born on October 26, 1911, as Mahala Jackson and nicknamed “Halie”. Jackson grew up in the Black Pearl section of the Carrollton neighborhood of uptown New Orleans. The three-room dwelling on Pitt Street housed thirteen people and a dog. This included Little Mahala (named after her aunt, Mahala Clark-Paul whom the family called Aunt Duke); her brother Roosevelt Hunter, whom they called Peter; and her mother Charity Clark, who worked as both a maid and a laundress. Several aunts and cousins lived in the house as well. Aunt Mahala was given the nickname “Duke” after proving herself the undisputed “boss” of the family. The extended family (the Clarks) consisted of her mother’s siblings: Isabell, Mahala, Boston, Porterfield, Hannah, Alice, Rhoda, Bessie, their children, grandchildren, and patriarch Rev. Paul Clark, a former slave. Jackson’s father, John A. Jackson Sr., was a stevedore (dockworker) and a barber who later became a Baptist minister. He fathered five other children besides Mahalia: Wilmon (older) and then Yvonne, Edna, Pearl and Johnny Jr. (by his marriage shortly after Halie’s birth). Her father’s sister, Jeanette Jackson-Burnett, and her husband, Josie, were vaudeville entertainers. Their son, her cousin Edward, shared stories and records of Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith, whose voices and blues singing impressed her so much that she would imitate their ways of bending and coloring notes. (Her voice and singing style would be compared to Bessie Smith’s all her life).
At birth, Jackson suffered from genu varum, or “bowed legs”. The doctors wanted to perform surgery by breaking her legs, but one of the resident aunts opposed it. Jackson’s mother would rub her legs down with greasy dishwater. The condition never stopped young Jackson from performing her dance steps for the white woman for whom her mother and Aunt Bell cleaned house.
Jackson was four (or five) years old when her mother Charity died (at the age of 25), leaving her family to decide who would raise Halie and her brother. Aunt Duke assumed this responsibility, and the children were forced to work from sun-up to sun-down. Aunt Duke would always inspect the house using the “white glove” method. If the house was not cleaned properly, Jackson was beaten. If one of the other relatives could not do their chores or clean at their job, Jackson or one of her cousins was expected to perform that particular task. School was hardly an option. Jackson loved to sing and church is where she loved to sing the most. Her Aunt Bell told her that one day she would sing in front of royalty, a prediction that would eventually come true Jackson began her singing career at the local Mount Moriah Baptist Church. At 12 years old, she was baptized in the Mississippi River by Mt. Moriah’s pastor, the Rev. E.D. Lawrence, then went back to the church to “receive the right hand of fellowship”.
Mahalia Jackson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1962
EditIn 1927, at the age of 16, Jackson moved to Chicago, Illinois, in the midst of the Great Migration. After her first Sunday school 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 14-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. She 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 no publicly known copies exist. Biographer Laurraine Goreau cites that it was also around this time she added the “i” to her name, changing it from Mahala to Mahalia, pronounced /məˈheɪliə/. At the age of 25, her 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, Jackson 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 stores could not stock enough copies 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 her 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”, 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 20,000 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).
Jackson in the Concertgebouw (1961)
In 1950, Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform at 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. She 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”. She had many notable accomplishments during this period, including her performance of many songs in the 1958 film St. Louis Blues, singing “Trouble of the World” in 1959’s Imitation of Life, and recording with Percy Faith. When she 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 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.
At the March on Washington in 1963, Jackson sang in front of 250,000 people “How I Got Over” and “I Been ‘Buked and I 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. She 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), 1963–64, 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, she 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 to the U.S., made one of her final television appearances on The Flip Wilson Show. She 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).
In 1970, she guest-starred on episode 56 of Sesame Street, singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, followed by Gordon Robinson (played by Matt Robinson) finding hidden E’s.