MY TRIBUTE TO MAHALIA JACKSON
Born in New Orleans in 1911, Mahalia Jackson grew up in a house 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 drifting 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.
Although she was encouraged to take singing lesions so white people could understand her, she resisted. 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 and her 45 rpm records included a dozen GOLD.
“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.”
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 her mother and Aunt Bell cleaned house.
Jackson was five when her mother Charity died, leaving her family to decide who would raise her and her brother. Aunt Duke assumed this responsibility, and the children were forced to work from sunup to sundown. 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 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 Mariah Baptist Church. She was baptized in the Mississippi River by Mt. Mariah’s pastor, the Rev. E.D. Lawrence, she then went back to the church to “receive the right hand of fellowship”.
In 1927, at the age of sixteen, Jackson moved to Chicago, Illinois, in the midst of the Great Migration. At her first Sunday church service she had given an impromptu performance of her favorite song, “Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, Gabriel”, which drew an admonishment from the Pastor. Nevertheless, 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.
In 1931, Jackson recorded “You Better Run, Run, Run”. Not much is known about this recording and no publicly known copies exist. At age 25, her second set of records was recorded on May 21, 1937, under the Decca Coral label, accompanied by Estelle Allen on the 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 sky 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.
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.
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. 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.
Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. contacted her about coming to Montgomery, Alabama, to sing at a rally to raise money for the bus boycott. They also hoped she would inspire the people who were getting discouraged with the boycott.
Despite death threats, Jackson agreed to sing in Montgomery. Her concert was on December 6, 1956. By then, the U.S. Supreme Court had 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. However, when she returned to the Abernathy’s home, it had been bombed. The boycott finally ended on December 21, 1956, when federal injunctions were served, forcing Montgomery to comply with the court ruling.
Although Jackson 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 the house had already been sold or they changed their minds 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, Jackson appeared often with King, singing before his speeches and for SCLC fundraisers. In a 1962 SCLC press release, he wrote she 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”.
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. She toured Europe again in 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 in 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. During her life her peak salary was $100,000.
Jackson died in Chicago on January 27, 1972 at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, Illinois, of heart failure and diabetes complications. Two cities paid tribute: Chicago and New Orleans. Beginning in Chicago, outside the Greater Salem Baptist Church, 50,000 people filed silently past her mahogany, glass-topped coffin in final tribute to the queen of gospel. The next day, as many people who could—6,000 or more—filled every seat and stood along the walls of the city’s public concert hall, the Arie Crown Theater of McCormick Place, for a two-hour funeral service. Her pastor, Rev. Leon Jenkins, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and Mrs. Coretta Scott King eulogized her during the Chicago funeral as “a friend – proud, black and beautiful”. Sammy Davis, Jr., and Ella Fitzgerald paid their respects. Joseph H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., delivered the eulogy at the Chicago funeral. Aretha Franklin closed the Chicago rites with a moving rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”.
Three days later, a thousand miles away, the scene repeated itself: again the long lines, again the silent tribute, again the thousands filling the great hall of the Rivergate Convention Center in downtown New Orleans this time. Mayor Moon Landrieu and Louisiana Governor John J. McKeithen joined gospel singer Bessie Griffin. Dick Gregory praised Jackson’s “moral force” as the main reason for her success. Lou Rawls sang “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”. The funeral cortège of 24 limousines drove slowly past her childhood place of worship, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, where her recordings played through loudspeakers. The procession made its way to Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, Louisiana, where she was entombed. Despite the inscription of her birth year on her gravestone as 1912, she was actually born in 1911. Among her surviving relatives is her great-nephews, NBA basketball player Danny Granger and soul artist Scotty Granger.
Jackson’s music was played widely on gospel and Christian radio stations, such as Family Radio. Her good friend Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “A voice like this one comes not once in a century, but once in a millennium.”