by Jerry Brock
Mahalia Jackson’s powerful and emotion-filled contralto voice created a divine and joyful noise that resonated the world over. Hailed by CBS Records as “The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer,” in her lifetime Jackson matured into an African-American woman of unmatched stature. She praised her Lord in song and through humanitarian acts, and by the 1950s she had become a pioneering leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
Jackson was born in New Orleans on October 26, 1911, into a family and culture just one generation removed from slavery. There is little documentation of her early life beyond oral history and this has led to biographical conflict and confusion. She was born Mahala Jackson, but was also called Mahaly and, later in life, Mahalia. But to family and friends, she was simply Halie.
Mahalia was the daughter of John “Johnny” Jackson and Charity Clark. The two-story, fourplex house where she was born stood on Water Street in Uptown New Orleans, three short blocks from Audubon Park and a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River. Today, the house and street no longer exist. The house sat at what is now approximately the intersection of Leake Avenue and Walnut Street, next to the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad line, for which tracks were laid while Mahalia was young. It is likely she was born in the residence of her great-aunt Agnes and uncle William Jackson. Her aunt Mahala Clark Paul assisted as midwife.
Mahalia’s paternal grandparents, Annie and John A. Jackson—direct descendants of slaves from Louisiana and Virginia, respectively—lived on Walnut Street. Reverend Paul Clark, Mahalia’s grandfather on her mother’s side, was born into slavery on the Merrick cotton plantation outside of Legonier, La., in Pointe Coupee Parish along the Atchafalaya River. Clark’s family included his sons Boson and Porter and daughters Alice, Mahala, Rhoda, Isabell, Hannah, and Mahalia’s mother Charity. Porter first moved to New Orleans around 1900 and the family followed.
Mahalia was one of six children from the aggregate families of Johnny Jackson and Charity Clark. Her siblings were Edna, Pearl, Yvonne, John, and Peter. Evidence suggests that she had support and influence from two immediate and large extended families.
Mahalia’s father worked as both a stevedore (on the Walnut Street wharves) and a barber, as well as a clergyman on Sundays. Her mother, who worked as a domestic and washerwoman, died when Mahalia was five or six. Mahalia then moved in with her namesake aunt Mahala (Clark) Paul, who was called Aunt Duke. They lived first at 7465 Pitt Street and later moved among several other addresses on that same block.
From all accounts, Aunt Duke was strict and religious. “She believed in the church and hard work and no frills … In our house we shut everything down from Friday night until Monday,” Jackson once recalled. “Either you were a Christian and acted like it or you were put out of the church.” Aunt Duke brought Mahalia to Plymouth Rock Missionary Baptist Church (233 Hilary Street), where she first sang in church. “A fishmonger taught me one of my first hymns, ‘Oh Pal, Oh God,’” Jackson told William “Bill” Russell, a groundbreaking American composer, musician, documentarian and historian. Before the age of 10, Mahalia became a soloist in the choir at the nearby Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church (147 Millaudon Street).
Jackson became immersed in the black Baptist singing tradition and the rich variety of African-American music found in her Uptown New Orleans neighborhood. “I was singing almost as soon as I was walking and talking,” she said. “I always had a big voice, even as a small child, and I was raised with music all around me.”
In 1954, Jackson wrote: “All around me in New Orleans were the deep, moving hymns — the swelling, rocking spiritual and gospel songs. I loved the hymns and gospel songs but I disobeyed my parents [Aunt Duke] and listened to the blues, the sorrow songs of my people. I heard the rich throbbing voices of Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith. … There was other music — the haunting rhythms of the work songs chanted by the Negro men as they sweated and strained, laying railroad ties … the wail of the blues, church music all got mixed in my brain.”
New Orleans jazz musician Emanuel Paul was born in the Carrollton area of New Orleans on February 2, 1904. Paul was related to Jackson through Aunt Duke’s husband, also named Emanuel Paul. He first learned music in the band at Broadway Mission Baptist Church. “Mahalia Jackson’s father once was a preacher or deacon at the church,” Paul told Bill Russell. “Mahalia would come in at times and she would bang on the piano and sing hymns … then suddenly she would run out without saying a word, to go and play … wouldn’t see her until next Sunday, and I’d often look for her in vain.”
Jackson heard the brass bands, possibly greats such as the Onward, Eureka, and her favorite, the Tuxedo, all of which were known to play in the annual parades of the Young & True Friends and the Merry-Go-Round benevolent associations. Jackson’s cousin Fred introduced her to the records of Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver as well as blues singers Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, and Bessie Smith. Less than two blocks from her house, the barroom on the corner of Cherokee and Ann streets (now Garfield), was the home base of a Mardi Gras Indian gang, the Red, White and Blue Eagles. Next door to Mahalia’s house was a Sanctified Church.
“Everybody in there sang and they clapped and stomped their feet and sang with their whole bodies,” Jackson remembered. “They had a beat, a powerful beat, a rhythm we held on to from slavery days and their music was so strong and expressive it use to bring the tears to my eyes.”
Clearly, Jackson’s early life in New Orleans was a significant influence on her musical voice as she helped pioneer a new style of gospel music after moving to Chicago as a teenager. Yet, it is important to view her life in a broader social context in order to realize the worldview that inspired her humanitarian and social-justice work.
Jackson’s family was dirt poor. Her grandparents experienced firsthand the Emancipation Proclamation. Mahalia was born 13 years after the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision institutionalized segregation. The neighborhood she grew up in, adjacent to Carrollton, is today known as the “Black Pearl,” but in her childhood it was called “Nigger Town.” St. Charles Avenue, the city’s grand thoroughfare with its mansions and whites-only Tulane University, was just six blocks away. Six blocks in a slightly different direction, Jackson attended the all-black public elementary school McDonough #24 (now Banneker Elementary) on Adams Street. At age 13, Jackson had to leave school to work as a washerwoman and cook. However, records indicate that education was important to the Jackson-Clark family, as all members in three generations of both families claimed the ability to read and write.
Accounts of Jackson’s life states that she moved to Chicago in either 1927 or ‘28 at the age of 16. That may be true. However, on a U.S. Census form dated April 17, 1930, it lists her living at 7469 Pitt St. in the 16th Ward, Orleans Parish, City of New Orleans. The census names Manuel Paul as head of household, Mahaly Paul as wife, Manuel Dustin as grandson, Isabella Dustin as granddaughter, Mahaly Jackson as niece, and Paul Clark as father-in-law.
Jackson moved to Chicago with her Aunt Hannah Robinson and worked in hotels, laundries, and private homes. “There was no money for lessons and I saved to buy phonograph records of Grace Moore, Mariam Anderson and Paul Robeson,” she recalled. “From them I learned diction and breathing. I learned style by listening to Bessie Smith’s records. She always meant the most to me.”
In Chicago, Jackson sang in the Salem Baptist Church Choir, joined the Johnson Gospel Singers, and then traveled with Dr. Thomas Andrew Dorsey’s choir, performing in what she called “storefront churches.” She performed at tent revivals with Rev. A. A. Childs and Rev. J. C. Austin. With Rev. Seal of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, Jackson sang at churches, jails, reform schools, and hospitals.
Many Baptists protested the new style of gospel that Jackson and her contemporaries forged. They expected a less emotional, more formal approach and criticized Jackson for adding “bounce” to the music, which Jackson also used to describe her style of religious music.
“Not everyone knows of the bitter fight it took to win acceptance,” Jackson wrote in 1954. “When I was a teenage girl I sang in Chicago churches literally for my supper. To earn five dollars was to be very successful. I sang on the street corners of cities all over the world, sang the gospel music written by such wonderful composers as Professor Thomas Dorsey.
“We were pioneering then, Professor Dorsey and I and everyone else who was singing the then ‘new’ gospel music. We were lonely because the great Baptist connection to which we belonged frowned on our style of singing. Gospel music — the way we sang it — was the same old church music, but with a little bounce. Sunday after Sunday, the finest preachers in the connection railed and stormed at us from their pulpits, accusing us of bringing jazz into the church.”
In 1931, Jackson purportedly recorded the song, “You Better Run, Run, Run,” but no known copy exists. In 1934, she traveled to New York with Elder Brodie for a 10-day revival at the Golden Gate Theater. This and other performances led to her recording for Decca Records. She received $25 for recording “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares” in 1937. Apollo Records, an independent company in New York, signed Jackson to a recording agreement around 1946. In September 1947, she recorded “Move on Up a Little Higher,” released the following year. It sold an estimated two-million copies initially and more than eight-million ultimately. “It was a song I sing that really launched me with the public,” Jackson explained.
Hailed by the late 1940s as “The Queen of Gospel,” Jackson’s popularity was unprecedented for an African-American artist. In 1948, she performed for a crowd of 21,000 at Ponce de Leon Park in Atlanta, Ga. More than 50,000 lined the streets under a hot August sun to welcome her in Dayton, Ohio, to celebrate “Mahalia Jackson Day” as declared by the city. “More people than they had for President Truman,” exclaimed Brother James, a local disc jockey.
On October 4, 1950, Jackson broke new ground with a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City. “Who would have thought that a little barefooted girl from Louisiana who played ball along the levee by the Mississippi River would someday stand on the stage at Carnegie Hall,” Jackson reflected, “with its thunderous ovation from an appreciative audience sounding and resounding in her ear in the concert hall of the world— Carnegie Hall!” When she returned to the fabled venue on October 7, 1951, workers put 300 chairs on the stage to try and accommodate the overflowing crowd. More than 3,500 people were turned away at the door. Busloads of people traveling to her show on the highway from Massachusetts were forced to turn back by state police.
Between 1946 and 1954, Jackson recorded many songs for Apollo Records, including “Nobody Knows,” “Walking to Jerusalem,” “How I Got Over,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “In the Upper Room,” “Bless this House,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Silent Night.”
She returned to New Orleans to perform and visit family. In 1951, she sang at Booker T. Washington High School; in 1958, she filled the Municipal Auditorium. In 1959 she attended the funeral of her brother, Peter Roosevelt Hunter.
In 1954 Jackson signed a long-term contract with CBS Radio for a weekly syndicated radio program that was, as per her demand, produced by beloved friend and Chicago-based writer and radio personality Studs Terkel. At the time, Terkel was under suspicion for communist activities. That same year she signed a contract with Columbia Records. Columbia executive George Avakian, who produced such label greats as Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, wrote to Bill Russell: “For Mahalia’s first album, I told her she should record what she wants to record. That, she said, would be a collection of true gospel songs. I think she should begin preparing a group of them (about 36 minutes of music in all) for a 12” LP.”
“They’re not spirituals because they don’t have the tradition of slavery behind them,” Jackson said. “But they express another kind of slavery from which we want to escape.” The album was entitled The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer and included the songs “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About,” “When I Wake Up in Glory,” “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” “Move on Up a Little Higher,” “Didn’t It Rain,” and “Walk Over God’s Heaven.”
For several months in 1955 — the same year Jackson marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to support the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama — Russell documented her professional life in a journal. In some entries, he went into great detail. “Gumbo Dinner,” evidently an important occasion, would appear as the only entry every couple of weeks.
Also in 1955, Jacson performed weekly on the “In Town Tonight” television program on WBBM in Chicago. On April 1, 1955, Russell wrote in his journal:
“I got to Mahalia’s [house] about 6:45 and asked at once if Mahalia was to be on TV at 10:15 (In Town Tonight) but she wasn’t. They had wanted her for the program but she’d told them she couldn’t because of the concert [in East Chicago] previously scheduled. … Wills Jones, Ralph, Mildred and Prince [all musicians] were at Mahalia’s when I got there. … They were interested in Rev. J. H. Jackson’s TV interview at 7 on a news broadcast in which he told about his invitation to speak in Russia. (Evidently he had accepted). Mahalia said from now [on] everybody in U.S. is going to watch him to see if he is a communist etc. … Mahalia had Ralph drive over on Route 41 (after going through Washington Park). When they went past Billings Hospital … both Mahalia and Wills talked a lot about it, and faith healing, especially by a Rev. (Freeman) I believe, whose brother is a good doctor. Wills told of remarkable cures of crippled children etc.”
Jackson’s public exposure broadened widely with two major film roles: as Bessie May in St. Louis Blues (1958) and as a choir soloist in Imitation of Life (1959).
In 1961, she encouraged Chicago-area preachers to sponsor a visit by Dr. King. Against the wishes of some members of the National Baptist Convention, she sponsored the hugely successful and moving event. Two years later, to mark the arrival of the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King requested Jackson sing “Buked and Scorned” as a prelude to his “I Have A Dream” speech. She delivered:
“I been buked and I been scorned,
I’m going tell my Lord,
When I get home,
Just how long you’ve been treating me wrong.”
At the request of John F. Kennedy, Jackson sang at his presidential inauguration. She sang at prisons, children’s homes, hospitals and for “dope fiends.” She personally raised the bail money for hundreds of jailed civil rights activists.
“The single most powerful black women in the United States, the woman power for the grass roots,” said actor and singer Harry Belafonte of Jackson, adding there was not “a single field hand, a single black worker, a single black intellectual who did not respond to her civil rights message.”
In 1961, she started the Mahalia Jackson Foundation to support young singers and award educational scholarships to deserving, disadvantaged students. By the mid 1960s, she began to have health problems, including a heart attack, but such physical setbacks didn’t slow Jackson down. She toured Japan, India, and Europe in 1971. She sang “We Shall Overcome” at a performance in India and dedicated it to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was in attendance.
Mahalia experienced two failed marriages. She wrote about them her article “Marital Bliss vs Single Blessedness,” published in the April 1968 issue of Ebony magazine. Issac Hockenhull was her first husband and Minters Sigmund Galloway her second.
“The ‘wedded bliss’ is over and I am back with ‘single blessedness.’ I may not have the love of a good man but God’s great love is always with me,” Jackson wrote.
“I have my career to continue, and I have the Mahalia Jackson Foundation through which I can do something constructive for others. For seven years I have been working alone to help new talent, help mothers unable to do for their children, and children unable to do for themselves. There can be no more ignorant people like me. My people must be educated if they are to make it in today’s world.”
On January 27, 1972 Mahalia Jackson died from heart failure at the Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, Ill.
Coretta Scott King reflected of Jackson’s passing: “The causes of justice, freedom and brotherhood have lost a real champion whose dedication and commitment knew no midnight.”
President Richard Nixon, in a White House statement, proclaimed: “America and the world, black people and all people, mourn the passing of Mahalia Jackson. She was a noble woman, an artist without peer, a magnetic ambassador of goodwill for the United States in other lands, an exemplary servant of her God. … All her years she poured out her soul in song and her heart in service to her people. Millions of ears will miss the sound of the great rich voice ‘making a joyful noise unto the Lord,’ as she liked to call her work – yet her life story itself sings the Gospel message of freedom, and will not cease to do so.”
Following large funeral services in both Chicago and New Orleans, she was laid to rest at Providence Memorial Park cemetery in Metairie, La. The inscription on her tomb reads “The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer.”
The Mahalia Jackson estate was valued at $4 million at the time of her death. Jackson was often offered large sums of money to sing secular music. But she always declined.
“Gospel singing is the only thing that expresses the soul of an individual and his hopes, dreams, and faith to God,” she explained. “No ifs, ands, or buts about it. I believe in what I sing. My faith in God and my songs are the only thing that have helped me. …People should come out of a gospel concert uplifted. All people need their souls fed. There are plenty of people around who can entertain and make people have fun. That’s not for me. I’m not trying to be a Sarah Vaughan. I’m a gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson.”
Jerry Brock is a co-founder of WWOZ Radio, filmmaker, Grammy Award winning record producer, full-time student and researcher currently living in exile from New Orleans.
MORE ABOUT MAHALIA JACKSON:
This article draws primarily from the Mahalia Jackson papers of the William Russell Jazz Collection housed at the Williams Research Center of The Historic New Orleans Collection. To some, Bill Russell (1905-1992) was the lanky, white-haired man who swept up after shows at Preservation Hall in the 1980s. But to others, he was an intellectual giant. He met Mahalia Jackson in Chicago around 1944, and they became close friends in 1954. For two years, Russell worked as her unofficial, unpaid personal assistant.
Additionals sources include:
- Mahalia Jackson’s interviews with Studs Terkel broadcast in a tribute produced by Democracy Now! (online at democracynow.com) on Nov. 27, 2008, following Terkel’s passing.
- Laurraine Goreau’s biography Just Mahalia, Baby (Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, La., 1975).
- Darlene Donloe’s biography Mahalia Jackson (Holloway House Publishing Company, Los Angeles, Calif., 1992).
- “Mahalia Jackson, Gospel Singer, And a Civil Rights Symbol, Dies” obituary by Alden Whitman, New York Times, Jan. 28, 1972.
- Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. 4, edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green (Radcliffe College, 1980).
There is a broad array of Mahalia Jackson discographies and compilation albums available online. The Apollo Recordings feature a younger, less produced, Mahalia, allowing listeners hear her more innovative, raw vocal expression. In recent years, the Sony Legacy label has mined a treasure trove of recorded work in the collective CBS/Columbia vault to create several stellar releases, including:
- Mahalia Jackson Recorded in Europe during Her Latest Concert Tour. A hallmark 1962 release of her tour of Europe and Israel in 1961, this compilation features remastered versions of her classics “Down by the Riverside” and“How I Got Over,” a cover of the show tune “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and a bonus of two unreleased tunes, “Didn’t It Rain” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” This recording is considered essential by virtue of Jackson being at the peak of her vocal powers at the time. She performs with piano accompaniment by longtime collaborator Mildred Falls.
- Mahalia Jackson in Concert Easter Sunday. Though battling her chronic health issues, the singer’s debut at the Philharmonic Hall of Lincoln Center is a powerful triumph — 11 songs accompanied by stirring drums, piano, organ, and guitar, including “An Evening Prayer” and “In My Home over There.”
- Sunday Morning Prayer Meeting with Mahalia Jackson. This reissue features live and studio material from the 1950s and ‘60s, with seven songs pulled from several of her great albums on Columbia and seven previously unreleased tunes, including an excellent rendition of the Dixie Hummingbirds’ “Trouble in My Way.”