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Mahalia Jackson ( /məˈheɪljə/ mə-hayl-yə; October 26, 1911 – January 27, 1972) was an African-American gospel singer. Possessing a powerful contralto voice, she was referred to as "The Queen of Gospel". Jackson became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world, and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist; entertainer Harry Belafonte called her "the single most powerful black woman in the United States". She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen "golds"—million-sellers.
Born as Mahala Jackson and nicknamed "Halie", Jackson grew up in the Black Pearl section of the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans, Louisiana. 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, whom they called Peter, and her mother Charity Clark, who worked as both a maid and a laundress. Several aunts and cousins lived in the house as well. Aunt Mahala was given the nickname "Duke" after proving herself the undisputed “boss” of the family. The extended family (the Clarks) consisted of her mother's siblings - Isabell, Mahala, Boston, Porterfield, Hannah, Alice, Rhoda, Bessie, their children, grandchildren and patriarch Rev. Paul Clark, a former slave. Mahalia's father, John A. Jackson, Sr. was a stevedore (dockworker) and a barber who later became a Baptist minister. He fathered four other children besides Mahalia - Wilmon (older) and then Yvonne, Pearl and Johnny, Jr. (by his marriage shortly after Halie's birth). Her father's sister, Jeanette Jackson-Burnett, and husband, Josie, were vaudeville entertainers.
When she was born Halie suffered from genu varum, or "bowed legs." The doctors wanted to perform surgery by breaking Halie's legs, but one of the resident aunts opposed it. So 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 her mother and Aunt Bell cleaned house for.
Mahalia was five when her mother, Charity, died, leaving her family to decide who would raise Halie 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, Halie was beaten. If one of the other relatives was unable to do their chores, or clean at their job, Halie or one of her cousins was expected to perform that particular task. School was hardly an option. Halie loved to sing and church is where she loved to sing the most. Halie’s Aunt Bell told her that one day she would sing in front of royalty, a prediction that would eventually come true. Mahalia Jackson began her singing career at the local Mount Mariah Baptist Church. She was baptized in Mississippi by Mt. Mariah's pastor, the Rev. E. D. Lawrence, then went back to the church to "receive the right hand of fellowship."
In 1936 Jackson married Isaac Lanes Grey Hockenhull ("Ike"), a graduate of Fisk University and Tuskegee Institute, who was 10 years her senior. Mahalia 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 and his addiction to gambling on racehorses.
In 1931, Jackson recorded "You Better Run, Run, Run". Not much is known about this recording, and is impossible to find. Biographer Laurraine Goreau cites that it was also around this time she added 'i' to her name, changing it from Mahala to Mahalia, pronounced /məˈheɪliə/. At age 26, Mahalia's second set of records were recorded on May 21, 1937 under the Decca Coral label, accompanied by Estelle Allen (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 she 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 that stores could not stock enough copies of it 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 rocketed Jackson 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 consequences of this change in her venues, her arrangements expanded from piano and organ to orchestral accompaniments.
Other recordings received wide praise, including: "Let the Power of the Holy Ghost Fall on Me" (1949), which won the French Academy's Grand Prix du Disque; and "Silent Night, Holy Night", which became one of the best-selling singles in the history of Norway. When Jackson sang "Silent Night" on Denmark's national radio, more than twenty thousand requests for copies poured in. Other recordings on the Apollo label included "He Knows My Heart" (1946), "Amazing Grace" (1947), "Tired" (1947), "I Can Put My Trust in Jesus" (1949), "Walk with Me" (1949), "Let the Power of the Holy Ghost Fall on Me" (1949), "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (1950), "The Lord's Prayer" (1950), "How I Got Over" (1951), "His Eye is on the Sparrow" (1951), "I Believe" (1953), "Didn't It Rain" (1953), "Hands of God" (1953), and "Nobody Knows" (1954).
1950s – 1970s
With her mainstream success, Jackson was criticized by some gospel purists who felt she had watered down her sound for popular accessibility. Jackson had many notable accomplishments during this period, including her performance of many songs in the 1958 film, St. Louis Blues, and singing "Trouble of the World" in 1959's Imitation of Life; recording with Percy Faith. When Mahalia Jackson recorded with Percy Faith in the Power and the Glory album, 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 (Newport 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 U.S. President 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. Historian Noel Serrano stated; "God touched the vocal chords of this Great Woman and placed a special elixir to sing for His honor and Glory!"
At the March on Washington in 1963, she sang in front of 250,000 people "How I Got Over" and "I've Been 'Buked, and I've Been Scorned". Rev. Dr. 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. Jackson sang to crowds at the 1964 New York World's Fair and was accompanied by "wonderboy preacher" Al Sharpton. She toured Europe again in 1961 (Recorded Live in Europe 1961), 1963–1964, 1967, 1968 and 1969. In 1970, she performed for Liberian President William Tubman.
Her last album was What The World Needs Now (1969). She ended her career in 1971 with a concert in Germany, and when she returned, made one of her final television appearances on The Flip Wilson Show. Jackson 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. She opened a beauty parlor and a florist shop with her earnings, while also investing in real estate ($100,000 a year at her peak).
Mahalia Jackson died in Chicago on January 27, 1972 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 song.[ The next day, as many as 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. Mahalia's pastor, the Rev. Leon Jenkins, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and Mrs. Coretta Scott King eulogized Mahalia during the Chicago funeral as "a friend - proud, black and beautiful". Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald paid their respects. Dr. 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 'Mahalia's "moral force" as main reason for her success", and 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. It made its way to Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, Louisiana where Jackson was entombed. Despite the inscription of Jackson's birth year on her headstone as 1912, she was actually born in 1911. Among Mahalia's surviving relatives is her great-nephew, Indiana Pacers forward Danny Granger.
Jackson's estate was reported at "more than a million dollars". Some reporters estimated that record royalties, TV and movie residuals, and various investments made it worth more. The bulk of the estate was left to a number of relatives — many of whom cared for Mahalia during her early years. Among principal heirs were relatives including her half-brother John Jackson and aunt Hannah Robinson. Neither of her ex-husbands, Isaac Hockenhull (1936–1941) or Sigmund Galloway (1964–1967), were mentioned in her will.
Legacy and honors
Mahalia Jackson's music was never played widely on any but traditional gospel and traditional Christian radio stations. Her music was heard for decades on Family Radio. Her good friend Martin Luther King Jr said, "A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium." She was a close friend of Doris Akers, one of the most prolific gospel composers of the 20th century. In 1958, they co-wrote the hit, "Lord, Don't Move The Mountain". Mahalia also sang many of Akers' own compositions such as, "God Is So Good To Me", "God Spoke To Me One Day", "Trouble", "Lead On, Lord Jesus", and "He's A Light Unto My Pathway", helping Doris to secure her position as the leading female Gospel composer of that time. In addition to sharing her singing talent with the world, she mentored the extraordinarily gifted Aretha Franklin. Mahalia was also good friends with Dorothy Norwood and fellow Chicago-based gospel singer Albertina Walker. She also discovered a young Della Reese. On the twentieth anniversary of her passing, Smithsonian Folkways Recording commemorated Jackson with the album I Sing Because I'm Happy, which includes interviews about her childhood conducted by Jules Scherwin.
American Idol winner and Grammy Award-winning R&B singer Fantasia Barrino has been cast to play Mahalia Jackson in a biopic about her life. The movie will be based on the 1993 book Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel. The film is said to be directed by Euzhan Palcy, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences created the Gospel Music or Other Religious Recording category for Jackson making her the first Gospel Music Artist to win the prestigious Grammy Award.
In December 2008, she was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
A prominent namesake in her native New Orleans is the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts, which was remodeled and reopened on January 17, 2009, with a gala ceremony featuring Placido Domingo, Patricia Clarkson, and the New Orleans Opera directed by Robert Dyall.