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Entertainment Profile: Mahalia Jackson

by Kenney Dennard

Known as the Queen of Gospel, or simply the greatest gospel singer of all times, Mahalia Jackson was also a beacon of light, shining to us through gospel music during a dark period of African American History. She recorded nearly 30 albums in her career and made a vow, in which she kept, to never sing secular music.

Mahalia was born in New Orleans in 1911, where she grew up in a home shared by 13 extended relatives. Her mother Charity, died when she was only five, leaving Mahalia to be raised by her aunt Duke. Though she and her family did domestic work from sun up to sun down, Mahalia always found time to sing. She fell in love with it at a young age. Her aunt Duke would tell her that one day she would sing for royalty, a prediction that would come true.

In 1927, the family moved to Chicago in the midst of the great migration, a period when southern blacks began to move north in hopes of finding better jobs and living conditions. The family found only low paying domestic work during the first few years. After her first Sunday of 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 composer Thomas Dorsey, an Atlanta native known as the Father of Gospel Music. He gave her musical advice and they would end up touring together for over 10 years. It was during this period that Jackson made a vow to live a pure life, free of secular entertainment. She promised to use her voice for spiritual song. She would say, "I can't sing a song that doesn’t have a message. If it doesn’t have the strength if it can’t lift you."

In 1936, Jackson married Isaac Lanes Grey Hockenhull. Later that year, she signed with Decca Records. Her first release, "God's Gonna Separate the Wheat From the Tares," only saw moderate success. Mahalia's husband, among many others, including record executives at Decca tried to convince her to sing blues. She refused and would lose her contract with Decca. She began to invest in Real Estate and also started her own business, a beauty shop. High paying offers for work in theatre rolled in, and though her husband protested, Mahalia kept her vow. She would later divorce Hockenhull.

In 1948, Mahalia recorded "Move On Up a Little Higher" for Apollo Records, which sold one million copies in the U.S. A white DJ, Studs Terkel, helped popularize the song by playing it amongst the hit soul music of the day. Jackson was gaining more and more popularity. Over the next few years, she would have a string of hits, including, "Silent Night, Holy Night," which became one of the best selling singles in history in Norway. Other hits included "He knows my Heart," "Amazing Grace," "Go Tell it on the Mountain," "The Lords Prayer," and "His Eyes on the Sparrow." She began to tour extensively. In 1950, she was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall as the headlining act at the First Gospel Music Festival, a monumental event in the history of gospel music.

Mahalia began a radio series on CBS and signed to Columbia Records in 1954. Suddenly, she found herself touring the globe, while recording highly successful albums with the label. She performed at dozens of monumental events, including her first European tour and appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which yielded the classic live album, "Live at Newport 1958." She also contributed vocals to Duke Ellington's suite, "Black, Brown and Beige." By 1960, Mahalia Jackson was an international star. But back home, her success brought lots of racist backlash. She received threats from neighbors that did not want an African American woman to live on the same quite street in the Chicago suburbs as they did.

Mahalia's struggle with racism urged her to get into the Civil Rights Movement. As early as 1956, Civil Rights leaders called on her to lend both her powerful voice and financial support to the rallies, marches and demonstrations.

In 1961, Jackson sang at President John F Kennedy's inauguration. In 1963, she sang in front of 250,000 people at the March on Washington. She sang, "How I Got Over" and "I've been 'Buked and I've been Scorned." She had become very close to Dr. King. She would also sing, “Take Me Lord Jesus," at his funeral in 1968. In 1970, Mahalia would sing for Liberian President William Tubman. Her last album was, "What the World Needs Now," in 1969. She ended her career in 1971 with a concert in Germany.

Mahalia Jackson died of heart failure and diabetes complications in 1972 at age 60. Two cities paid tribute to her, Chicago and New Orleans. Outside the Greater Salem Baptist Church in Chicago, nearly 50,000 people filed silently past her coffin to pay their last respects. The next day, as many as could, 6,000 or more, filled every seat for a two-hour funeral service where Coretta Scott King eulogized her as "A friend, proud, black and beautiful." Aretha Franklin closed the funeral with a rendition of "Precious Lord Take My Hand."

Although it’s been nearly 40 years since the death of Mahalia Jackson, her powerful voice is still one of the most powerful beloved voices of Gospel.

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Mahalia Jackson