Photo credits: YouTube screenshot/Sensei Aishitemasu
Mahalia Jackson (pictured) was an American singer who was known as the “Queen of Gospel.”
Jackson was born on October 26, 1911 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was brought up in a strict religious atmosphere. Her father’s family included several entertainers. However, she was molded to confine her own musical activities to singing in the church choir and listening—surreptitiously—to recordings of Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Enrico Caruso. When she was 16, she went to Chicago and joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church choir. Her remarkable contralto voice soon led to her selection as a soloist.
Jackson first came to wide public attention in the 1930s, when she participated in a cross-country gospel tour. She sang songs, such as “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “I Can Put My Trust in Jesus.” In 1934 her first recording, “God Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares,” was a success, leading to a series of other recordings. Jackson’s first great hit, “Move on Up a Little Higher,” appeared in 1945.
This song was especially important for its use of the “vamp,” an indefinitely repeated phrase (or chord pattern) that provides a foundation for solo improvisation. All the songs with which she was identified—including “I Believe,” “Just over the Hill,” “When I Wake Up in Glory,” and “Just a Little While to Stay Here”—were gospel songs. Their texts were drawn from biblical themes and were strongly influenced by the harmonies, rhythms, and the emotional force of blues.
Jackson refused to sing anything but religious songs. She did not sing at all in surroundings that she considered inappropriate. But she sang on the radio and on television and, starting in 1950. Jackson performed to overflow audiences in annual concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Eight of Jackson’s records sold more than a million copies each.
Jackson was enormously popular abroad. Her version of “Silent Night,” for example, was one of the all-time best-selling records in Denmark. She made a notable appearance at the Newport (Rhode Island) Jazz Festival in 1957. This was a program devoted entirely, at Jackson’ss request, to gospel songs. She also sang at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in January 1961.
In the 1950s and ’60s, she was active in the civil rights movement. In 1963, she sang the old African American spiritual “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned” for a crowd of more than 200,000 in Washington, D.C., which was just before civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Mahalia Jackson died on January 27, 1972 in Evergreen Park, Illinois at 60 years of age. However, he amazing legacy built on singing the gospel has continued to live on.
Reference: Tikkanen, A. (2020 October 22) Mahalia Jackson: American Singer. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mahalia-Jackson
*BlackThen.com writer and historian Victor Trammell edited and contributed to this report.