Any Black child that stepped into the home of their sanctified grandparent has found key items of definition … the familiar smells of Southern cooking accompanied by very particular sounds emanating from the stereo.
For me, Grandma Doris’ speakers would only play one of three artists; Shirley Caesar, the Rev. James Cleveland, or the “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson. Jackson’s presence was a symbol of dignity that forever changed society and music.
Mahala Jackson (later adding the “i” to her first name) was born Oct. 26, 1911 in the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans. She grew up in poverty in a shack on Pitt Street. She was born with a handicap that prevented her from walking for much of her young life. Her grandfather was enslaved on a plantation, her father worked the docks and cut hair. Though Jackson began singing in church at the age of 4, she was struck with the devastating loss of her mother at the age of 5. This pathos speaks volumes to the source of her passionate singing and stage presence.
Jackson had several influences for her unique sound. She was Influenced by the day laborers, dock workers and the forbidden records of blues greats Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Jackson was also intrigued by and the new movement of the loud and expressive Pentecostal Church. When she brought these influences into her Baptist home church elders would tell her to leave.
Mahala dropped out of elementary school to become a laborer. Growing up during the Great Depression she felt that even educated people ended up working domestic jobs for whites. There were few opportunities for Black people to excel. Jackson’s voice gave her an opportunity to bring herself and her people out of destitute. She moved to Chicago at the age of 15 with the aim of studying nursing while continuing as day worker. Coming from the cruel South, she was surprised to find unthinkable interactions like catching a cab from a white driver.
In Chicago, Jackson joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church, and with her impressive voice and style soon became a member of the Johnson Gospel Singers. The “Father of Black Gospel Music” Thomas Dorsey discovered Jackson and soon became her accompanist playing piano. Dorsey had played with Ma Rainey and wrote for Bessie Smith and now made a conversion to Gospel music. He wrote “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” which Jackson recorded for Columbia Records. The two traveled together for five years.
“I think Mahalia Jackson is one of the great singers of these times. She had a voice second to none. The way she handled the trills and turns in that voice put her into a class by herself,” stated Doresy in a 1971 interview.
In the early days Mahalia Jackson's concert tickets would sell for 15 to 50 cents. She would sing songs on street corners as promotion. Her voice would bring people to tears. Even in the early days of her career she showed great compassion for her people. She regularly held revivals to raise money for churches and would regularly feed people who were without money. She stated, “I’ve been able to take that 50 cents from people that had nothing and cook up food and help people. That's the first thing Christ did, he didn’t tell man to be born again. He started feeding ‘em first. Then he started talking about the spiritual part. Get a man full first and then you can start talking about salvation.”
Though many of her contemporaries were finding success converting from gospel to jazz and the blues, Jackson vowed to only sing gospel music. Decca Records (home of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday) was amazed by her singing and released her single, "God's Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares” along with a few other songs. Surprisingly, the record flopped and the label suggested that she switch to secular music. When she refused, she was dropped and spent seven years away from the studio in the prime of her life. This put a strain on her new marriage, ultimately ending in divorce.
Though not overnight Jackson’s life made a significant change. In the late 1940s she signed on to the small Apollo Records label and recorded the smash hit, "Move On Up a Little Higher.” The song would go on to sell more than 8 million copies. Jackson would later sing at the White House, Buckingham Palace and Carnegie Hall. She also played alongside Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festival. At one point she turned down a $25,000 offer to play in Las Vegas. For someone who once sang for pennies this proves her conviction to her faith.
In 1962 Mahalia Jackson was awarded the first Grammy for Gospel, a category created specifically to honor her work.
Jackson’s humble spirit gave her a higher calling in the Civil Rights Movement. It started when the Rev. Ralph Abernathy asked her to sing to help jailed civil rights activists including Rosa Parks and his mentee the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King would call Jackson directly for song, planning and prayer. She was personally invited to sing at the 1963 March on Washington by King and was asked to encore.
Though Jackson was wealthy and could have stayed on tour, she rather chose to raise money throughout the South for the cause of civil rights, regularly singing for free. King asked Mahalia to sing at his funeral if he was to be taken away before her, and unfortunately. she had to make good on her agreement in 1968 upon his assassination.
Though Mahalia Jackson amassed great wealth, with an estate worth of $4 million dollars upon her death in 1972, she always kept her faith and her people first.
“What can we do but help each other, help humanity? God don't need nothing but for us to love each other and help each other. If I see a wino in the street, I’m not too proud to speak. You’ve got to learn to show kindness to those that feel that nobody cares about ‘em.”