Mahalia Jackson was gospel music’s first superstar and is considered the greatest gospel singer ever to live. She was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as “the single most powerful Black woman in the United States”. She recorded about 30 albums during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.
Mahalia Jackson was born on October 26, 1911 as Mahala Jackson and nicknamed “Halie” (When she started to sing professionally, she added an “i” to her first name). Jackson grew up in the Black Pearl section of the Carrollton neighborhood of uptown New Orleans. The three-room dwelling on Pitt Street housed thirteen people and a dog. This included Little Mahala (named after her aunt, Mahala Clark-Paul whom the family called Aunt Duke); her brother Roosevelt Hunter, and her mother Charity Clark, who worked as both a maid and a laundress. Several other aunts and cousins lived in the house as well.
Jackson made her debut in the children’s choir of the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church at the age of four, and within a few years was a prominent member of the Mt. Moriah Baptist’s junior choir. Her Aunt Bell told her one day she would sing in front of royalty, a prediction that would eventually come true. Brought up in a devout Christian family, Jackson still found herself influenced by the secular sounds of blues artists like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
When Jackson was five her mother Charity died, and she was raised by Aunt Duke. She quit school during the eighth grade, and relocated to Chicago in 1927, where she worked as a maid and laundress; with the aim of studying nursing. However, within months of her arrival, she was singing leads with the choir at the Greater Salem Baptist Church, where she joined the three sons of her pastor in their group the Johnson Brothers. She performed with the Johnson Brothers for a number of years, before she began working with Thomas A. Dorsey, a gospel composer; the two performed around the U.S., further cultivating an audience for Jackson. She also took on a number of jobs — working as a laundress, beautician and flower shop owner for example — before her musical career went into the stratosphere. She wed Isaac Hockenhull in 1936, with the two later divorcing.
While she made some recordings in the 1930s, Mahalia Jackson tasted major success with Move On Up a Little Higher in 1947, which sold millions of copies and became the highest selling gospel single in history. She became more in demand, making radio and television appearances and going on tour, eventually performing in Carnegie Hall on October 4, 1950 to a racially integrated audience. Jackson also had a successful 1952 tour abroad in Europe, and she was especially popular in France and Norway. She had her own gospel program on the CBS television network in 1954 and scored a pop hit with Rusty Old Halo.
In 1956, Jackson made her debut on The Ed Sullivan Show and in 1958 appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, performing with Duke Ellington and his band. Ellington and Jackson worked together on an album released the same year under Columbia Records titled Black, Brown and Beige. Future Columbia recordings from Jackson included The Power and the Glory (1960), Silent Night: Songs for Christmas (1962) and Mahalia (1965).
In 1959, Jackson appeared in the film Imitation of Life. By the end of the decade, much of Jackson’s work featured crossover production styles; she was an international figure, with a performance itinerary that included singing at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
Jackson was also an active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. She sang at the March on Washington at the request of her friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963, performing I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned. In 1966, she published her autobiography Movin’ On Up. After King’s death in 1968, Jackson sang at his funeral and then largely withdrew from public political activities.
In her later years, Mahalia Jackson had several hospitalizations for severe health problems, giving her final concert in 1971 in Munich, Germany. She died of a heart attack on January 27, 1972.
Jackson is remembered and loved for her impassioned delivery, her deep commitment to spirituality and her lasting inspiration to listeners of all faiths.