”Queen of Gospel Music”
When I watched TV variety programs in the 1950s one frequent performer I noticed was a roundish black lady, clad in a choir robe, and backed by several others in similar garb. She sang what I knew then as “Negro spirituals” and I remember she always had a very elaborate coiffure. Yet what impressed me the most – and still does – was that she really “felt” what she sang, but that was part of the talent and gifts of Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel Music.”
The singer Mahalia Jackson was born as “Mahala” in New Orleans in October, 1911, part of a very large extended family that included her brother, father, mother and other aunts and cousins, all of whom occupied a three room home. At the time of her brother’s birth, “Halie” developed a leg deformity that meant her mother rubbed her limbs down with greasy dishwater as at attempted treatment, after she refused surgeons who wanted to break one of the child’s legs. Yet the disability did not stop the litter girl from performing dance steps for her mother’s employer.
When Halie was five, her mother died and an aunt assumed care for the child and her brother, insisting that the children work long hours and do their chores properly. They risked whipping if they did not. Though she couldn’t go to school, Halie loved to sing and did so frequently at church. (In fact her aunt once predicted she would sing before royalty – which she did).
In 1927 at age 16 Halie moved north to Chicago, and there at a church she gave an impromptu performance and then was invited to join the choir of the large Baptist church. Also, at this time she toured with a professional gospel group, and in 1929 she met Thomas a. Dorsey, who was known as the “Father of Gospel Music.” He became a mentor and advisor and for some fourteen years beginning in the 1930s, Mahalia toured, singing Dorsey’s music in churches and at other gospel programs. One of his best known was the classic “Precious Lord, Take my Hand” which became closely associated with Mahalia.
In 1936 she married Isaac Lanes Grey Hockenhull (known as “Ike”) a graduate of Fisk University and Tuskegee Institute. However, because her husband constantly pressured her to sing secular music (something she’d promised herself she would never do), and because of his gambling, they were divorced in 1941.
About this time she added the letter “i” to her name, becoming Mahalia. She also began recording, and at 26 in 1937 she issued a set of records under the Decca Coral label. Included were such classics as “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares,” “My Lord,” “Keep Me Everyday” and God Shall Wipe All Tears Away.” Unfortunately the records did not sell enough and Decca dropped her. However, a few years later she achieved much greater success.
In 1947 she signed with another label and a year later when she recorded “Move On Up a Little Higher,” it was so popular that the record company could not keep up with demand and it eventually sold 8 million copies. This success promoted Mahalia to national and even international fame, and she began to appear in concert halls rather than just churches, and to have orchestral accompaniment instead of just piano.
In the 1950s, and 1960s Mahalia toured, recorded and appeared on TV and radio. Though her recordings were rarely played on any but gospel and Christian radio, nevertheless she had a great influence on not just her genre but also on other younger artists. She promoted and mentored both Aretha Franklin and Della Reese – the latter joined Jackson’s gospel group at age 13.
Ms. Jackson died in Chicago in January, 1972 and thousands attended her funeral at a public concert hall in Chicago. Speakers at the service included Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley and Mrs. Martin Luther King, who called her “a friend – proud, black and beautiful”. Aretha Franklin concluded the event with a poignant “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
In the secular entertainment world where gospel singing had little mention and influence, Mahalia Jackson’s personality, unique talent and devotion to her art served as a shining example to a world that needed her message. Her friend Dr. Martin Luther King put it well: “A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium.”