As we close out Women’s History Month here on #BlackMusicSunday, it is only fitting that we pay tribute to “The Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson.
You do not have to be a churchgoer or even a Christian to appreciate the impact of gospel music on multiple genres of Black music—the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. The secular impact of Black gospel, with its roots in Negro spirituals, is ubiquitous; it transcends the race of performers.
We have Mahalia Jackson to thank for her powerful contribution to the music so many of us listen to today.
Mahalia Jackson’s beginnings were steeped in poverty. Lonnie Bunch, currently secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, covers her early years in a biographical sketch for the museum.
Her childhood home was a three-room house in the Black Pearl section of (New Orleans). It was a tiny space, home not only to little "Halie," and her mother and brother, but to assorted aunts and cousins, too. In total, thirteen people and a dog shared that home.
Mahalia's mother died when she was five, adding more hardship to her young life. She was raised by her Aunt "Duke," who allowed no secular records in the home and who treated Mahalia and her cousins harshly when they failed to keep the family home immaculate.
Mahalia began singing in church as a child. Quickly it became apparent that she had a tremendous talent and possessed a voice that was rich, strong and impressive. One family member said Mahalia would one day sing before royalty. Eventually, that came true.
After moving to Chicago in 1927 as a teenager during the Great Migration north, word of her amazing voice began to spread — first in local churches, and soon in churches across America. In 1948, she recorded "Move On Up a Little Higher" for Apollo records.
This is the original 1947 recording of the song that would propel her to success.
Jackson faced obstacles other than poverty as a child.
When she was born Halie 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.
Halie's mother would rub her legs down with greasy dishwater. The condition never stopped young Halie from performing her dance steps for the white woman for whom her mother and Aunt Bell cleaned house.
Paul Winfield narrates the comprehensive, must-see 1997 documentary, Mahalia Jackson: The Power and the Glory, directed by Jeff Scheftel. As Video Librarian’s S. Rees wrote in their review:
The film recalls her natural gift to move listeners, which came from her abiding religious faith. Mahalia was hampered by physical disabilities and limited by her refusal to abandon gospel for the more commercial blues and jazz. But her biggest obstacle was America's persistent racism, which kept her out of hotels and restaurants, discouraged "Negro records" from being heard on the radio, and drove her popular television show off the air. Family and friends (notably author Studs Terkel) remember the personal side of the singer, and film clips show the clapping, shaking, thundering electricity of her live performances.
Find 85 minutes to watch it.
Though Jackson had a CBS radio show in Chicago and a television series, Mahalia Jackson Sings, the prevailing racism of the time period cut both short. This is one of the few surviving clips from Jackson’s TV show.
Moving beyond gospel, Jackson had an impact on the Civil Rights Movement. Without Mahalia Jackson’s prompt to “tell them about the dream, Martin,” we may not have had the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speech known today as “I Have a Dream.” In a 2013 New York Times op-ed, Drew Hansen wrote about that moment in the movement.
King read from his prepared text for most of his speech, which relied on the Bible, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence — just as President John F. Kennedy had a few months earlier, when he called for civil rights legislation in a nationally televised address: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”
As King neared the end, he came to a sentence that wasn’t quite right. He had planned to introduce his conclusion with a call to “go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.” He skipped that, read a few more lines, and then improvised: “Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
Nearby, off to one side, Mahalia Jackson shouted: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” King looked out over the crowd. As he later explained in an interview, “all of a sudden this thing came to me that I have used — I’d used many times before, that thing about ‘I have a dream’ — and I just felt that I wanted to use it here.” He said, “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” And he was off, delivering some of the most beloved lines in American history, a speech that he never intended to give and that some of the other civil rights leaders believed no one but the marchers would ever remember.
Jackson had a long history with the Rev. Dr. King and the fight for civil rights, as the King Encyclopedia at Stanford University illustrates.
Already an icon, Jackson met Ralph Abernathy and King at the 1956 National Baptist Convention. King later asked if she could perform in Montgomery for the foot soldiers of the newly successful bus boycott. On 17 May 1957, she joined King on the third anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, singing at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C. She subsequently appeared often with King, singing before his speeches and for Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) fundraisers. In a 1962 SCLC press release, King wrote that Jackson “has 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” (SCLC, 10 October 1962).
Jackson performed “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned” before King took the podium at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Later expressing his gratitude to Jackson, King wrote: “When I got up to speak, I was already happy. I couldn’t help preaching. Millions of people all over this country have said it was my greatest hour. I do not know, but if it was, you, more than any single person helped to make it so” (King, 10 January 1964). 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” (Whitman, “Mahalia Jackson”). In addition to the inspiration that her singing provided the movement, Jackson also contributed financially.
After King’s assassination, Jackson honored his last request by singing “Precious Lord” at his funeral. When Jackson herself died of heart failure in 1972 at age 60, Coretta Scott King commented that “the causes of justice, freedom, and brotherhood have lost a real champion whose dedication and commitment knew no midnight” (Whitman, “Mahalia Jackson”).
You can see the Rev. Dr. King’s love and appreciation for Jackson in this clip, where he states, “a voice like this only comes to us once in a millennium.”
Many other prominent individuals have expressed similar sentiments.
After he was taken from us far too soon, Jackson would sing the Rev. Dr. King’s favorite song at his funeral.
Martin Luther King Jr’s last words were to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at an event King was going to attend:
“Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Minutes later he was shot. He never regained consciousness.
“Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite song, and he often invited gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to sing it at civil rights rallies to inspire the crowds; at his request she sang it at his funeral in April 1968.
For those interested in a deeper dive into cultural studies, ethnomusicology and/or music history, Dr. Mark Burford, the R.P. Wollenberg Professor of Music and chair of the American Studies department at Reed College published the seminal (and award-winning) text on Mahalia Jackson’s music, Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field.
Nearly a half century after her death in 1972, Mahalia Jackson remains the most esteemed figure in black gospel music history. Born in the backstreets of New Orleans in 1911, Jackson during the Great Depression joined the Great Migration to Chicago, where she became an highly regarded church singer and, by the mid-fifties, a coveted recording artist for Apollo and Columbia Records, lauded as the "World's Greatest Gospel Singer."
This "Louisiana Cinderella" narrative of Jackson's career during the decade following World War II carried important meanings for African Americans, though it remains a story half told. Jackson was gospel's first multi-mediated artist, with a nationally broadcast radio program, a Chicago-based television show, and early recordings that introduced straight-out-of-the-church black gospel to American and European audiences while also tapping the vogue for religious pop in the early Cold War. In some ways, Jackson's successes made her an exceptional case, though she is perhaps best understood as part of broader developments in the black gospel field. Built upon foundations laid by pioneering Chicago organizers in the 1930s, black gospel singing, with Jackson as its most visible representative, began to circulate in novel ways as a form of popular culture in the 1940s and 1950s, its practitioners accruing prestige not only through devout integrity but also from their charismatic artistry, public recognition, and pop-cultural cachet. These years also saw shifting strategies in the black freedom struggle that gave new cultural-political significance to African American vernacular culture.
Professor Burford presented some of his research at the 2019 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Conference in Portland, Oregon.
Burford’s research is multi-pronged.
For many fans, record collectors, and students of Black vernacular music, Mahalia Jackson’s recordings for the Apollo label, made between October 1946 and June 1954, represent a watershed in gospel music history. Though Jackson was, in fact, already recording the religious pop that proliferated in the 1950s, admirers offer her Apollo sides as exemplars of a period of relative gospel purity preceding, many assert, the rerouting and overproduction of Columbia Records’ crossover efforts.
Focusing on those recordings stylistically closest to gospel, this paper will consider three aspects of Jackson’s Apollo output: the trajectory of the label’s production strategies, the performance practices employed by the singer, and the historical significance of this body of work for our understanding of the postwar Black gospel field. Jackson’s instrumental accompaniment at Apollo exhibits a clear trajectory that was already apparent in her first three sessions, progressively complementing piano with first organ and then guitar, and eventually growing to a full rhythm section and backing singers.
Alongside their drift toward an increasingly ear-catching sonic surface, these recordings can be sorted according to three distinct “feels”: an uptempo “swing” feel, an expressively phrased “gospel” feel, and a “free” feel reserved primarily for hymns. Lastly, the success of Jackson’s Apollo recordings, and in particular her breakout hit “Move On Up a Little Higher,” helped coax gospel singers to relax their ambivalence toward recording, upstaging gospel songs circulating as sheet music and making charismatic performance in the form of gospel singing a more mobile medium for the art form.
I spent some time this week listening to those original Apollo recordings, like this rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
This particular song took me back to many of my family funerals. Both my mom and her sister (my aunt) put this on their lists of what hymns they wanted sung at their respective ”going home” celebrations.
When Mahalia Jackson died in early 1972, there was an outpouring of grief in the Black community. Ebony Magazine documented the packed funeral services held for her in Chicago and New Orleans.
Aretha Franklin sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at the Chicago service in Salem Baptist Church, on Feb. 2, 1972.
Her funeral in New Orleans was held two days later, in the Rivergate Auditorium.
As the Feb. 4, 1972 Times-Picayune described, “approximately 45,000 to 50,000 mourners passed by her open, glass-enclosed mahogany casket’’ during a seven-hour period at The Rivergate (which was later torn down to build Harrah’s). Mourners stood in line for hours in the cold winds to pay their respects. And even after her services were concluded, The Rivergate stayed open all night to accommodate mourners.
Her family had wanted her to lie in state at the Municipal Auditorium, but Mardi Gras balls there conflicted. “Mourners, admirers and fans of Miss Jackson entered The Rivergate at the rate of 120 per minute,’’ The Times-Picayune reported. Throughout the day, yellow school buses brought children from throughout the city to pay their respects. Each school was allowed to send 60 students. Most of the schools participated, and most brought flowers, the paper reported.
“During those services, there was an outpouring of emotion, a constant stream of devotion as The Rivergate was transformed into what the Rev. A.L. Davis, vice president of the National Baptist Convention USA, called a ‘holy sanctuary.’’’
In January, I got a chance to preview an upcoming documentary from Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson, titled Summer of Soul, when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. (Full disclosure: I’m in the film.)
Watching Mavis Staples join Jackson on stage in Harlem was like viewing a passing of the torch.
The Los Angeles Times reviewed the film.
What follows in “Summer of Soul” is a performance of the song by Jackson and Staples that by all rights should already be in the American pantheon, rich with sweat, tears, soaring, pitch-perfect lines — "Hear my cry, hear my call / Hold my hand lest I fall" — and so much enlightened divinity as to overwhelm the screen. Jackson, then 58, was the unrivaled Queen of Gospel, and Staples, who idolized Jackson and had just turned 30, was her rightful heir. The two swap verses and then team up for the third. When they do, their intertwined voices glisten like daybreak sunbeams shooting through a valley.
"I just wanted to shout, and Lord, standing there with Sister Mahalia Jackson, I got up and I started that song," Staples recalls in the film, calling the performance "just an unreal moment for me."
Mavis Staples, who I covered in a previous #BlackMusicSunday story, viewed Jackson as a mentor. Staples tells the story of meeting Jackson the first time, in this deleted scene from the film Mavis!
Staples also shared this story with the L.A. Times.
“My sister and I were in the same dressing room with her, where we put our choir robes on,” Staples said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Chicago. “The first thing I said: ‘Miss Mahalia Jackson, I sing too.’ She said, ‘That’s gooood. I’m going to be listening when you sing.’ ”
After the gospel group’s opening set, Jackson was gracious--"You’re a good little singer"--then became stern when she saw Mavis head for the dressing room door. “I was going to go outside and jump rope before [Jackson] came on. We kids liked the music, but we didn’t like to hear the preachers talking, so we’d sneak our jump ropes to church. “She said, ‘Where you going? Come here; sit your little butt down. You’re not going nowhere. Don’t you know you’re damp? When you go home, tell your mama to give you one of your brother’s T-shirts and dry off, ‘cause you won’t have no voice. You want to grow up and sing a long time, don’t you?’ ”
The next day, Jackson, who also lived in Chicago, called Staples’ mother to make sure her warning about protecting the voice after a performance had gotten through: “ ‘Did your baby tell you what I told her last night?’ ” Staples recalled.
Putting on a T-shirt right after a show to absorb sweat remains part of Mavis Staples’ performance regimen to this day.
Over the years of following Black music and Black gospel, I’ve often seen queries about “When will there be a biopic done for Mahalia?” In 2011, it was announced that Fantasia was cast to play Jackson in a biopic based on the 1993 book Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel. Then there were reports that she was un-selected for the role. Haven’t found any updates on that film, but there are three Jackson biopics in the production pipeline. The first of the three stars Orange is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks. Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia premieres April 3.
Brooks spoke to A&E’s Kirby Dixon and Amira Lewally this week.
Next, Jill Scott stars in Mahalia!
The third stars Ledisi.
After all this time, it’s raining Mahalia movies!
The good news about all these films is that younger generations will have the opportunity to be introduced to Ms. Jackson, her music, and the role she played in our history.
I’m closing today’s story with Jackson in a very secular setting: the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival, in tribute to Louis Armstrong.
Join me in the comments for even more Mahalia!