Writer: Ubamara Ezenobi


She was one of the greatest gospel singers who ever lived.

Mahalia Jackson was born on October 26, 1911, in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was born to Johnson A. Jackson Snr and Charity Clark. Popularly known as ‘the Queen of Gospel’, Mahalia had a powerful and commanding voice, and she was known as the greatest gospel singer of the world while she lived. She started singing when she was four, at the well-known Mount Moriah Baptist Church. Later on she joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church.

The formative years of Mahalia’s life were far from rosy. At birth, Jackson suffered from Genu varum, or ‘bowed legs’. Doctors wanted to perform surgery by breaking her legs, but one of her aunts opposed it. Her mother died at 25 when she was only four or five, and she was left in the care of her Aunt Duke who did not spare the little girl any maltreatment. She and her brother had to do virtually all the work at home at a very tender age, and if the house was not cleaned enough, she was beaten.

Mahalia got married in 1936 to Isaac Lanes Grey Hockenhull. Sadly the marriage did not last. Isaac often tried getting her to sing secular music, something she vowed not to do all her life. He was also addicted to gambling on racehorses, and in 1941 Jackson divorced him.

She began touring her city’s churches and surrounding areas with the Johnson Gospel Singers, one of the earliest professional gospel groups. Sometime later Jackson met the composer Thomas Dorsey, known as the Father of Gospel Music. He gave her musical advice, and in 1939 they began a five-year association of touring, with Jackson singing Dorsey’s songs in church programs and at conventions. His ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ became her signature song.

The song that brought Mahalia world recognition was to come in 1948. Jackson had signed up with Apollo Label the previous year and that year she recorded the song ‘Move on up a Little Higher’. It got so popular that stores couldn’t even meet up demand. The song rocketed her to fame in the USA, and from there on there was no stopping her. Other songs she released had wide praise and won her several awards.

mahalia jackson 2

Mahalia Jackson. Photo credit: BBC.

In 1950, Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. She started touring Europe in 1952 and was hailed by critics as the world’s greatest gospel singer. In Paris she was called the Angel of Peace, and throughout the continent, she sang to capacity audiences. The tour, however, had to be cut short due to exhaustion.

With her mainstream success, Jackson was criticized by some gospel purists who complained about her hand-clapping and foot-stomping and about her bringing “jazz into the church”. She had many notable accomplishments during this period, including her performance of many songs in the 1958 film ‘St Louis Blues’, singing “Trouble of the World” in 1959’s ‘Imitation of Life’ (an American romantic drama film), and recording with Percy Faith. When she recorded The Power and the Glory with Faith, the orchestra arched their bows to honour her in solemn recognition of her great voice.

She ended her career in 1971 with a concert in Germany, and when she returned to the U.S., made one of her final television appearances on ‘The Flip Wilson Show’. She 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. Her last album was ‘What the World Needs Now’, which she released in 1969. The next year, in 1970, she and Louis Armstrong performed “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” together.

Jackson died on January 27, 1972.


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