“Gospel music is nothing but singing of good tidings — spreading the good news. It will last as long as any music because it is sung straight from the human heart.” – Mahalia Jackson
Born on October 26, 1911, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Charity and Johnny Jackson, Mahalia Jackson became one of gospel music’s all-time greats, known for her rich, powerful voice that cultivated a global following. The young Mahalia grew up in a Pitt Street shack and started singing at 4 years old in the Mount Moriah Baptist Church.
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. Jackson’s sanctified style of performance would also rely upon freer movement and rhythm when contrasted to the styles seen in more conservative congregations.
After moving to Chicago as a teen with the aim of studying nursing, Mahalia Jackson joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church and soon became a member of the Johnson Gospel Singers. She performed with the group for a number of years. Jackson then started 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.
Mahalia Jackson started singing as a child at Mount Moriah Baptist Church and went on to become one of the most revered gospel figures in the U.S. Her recording of “Move On Up a Little Higher” was a major hit and she subsequently became an international figure for music lovers from a variety of backgrounds. She worked with artists like Duke Ellington and Thomas A. Dorsey and also sang at the 1963 March on Washington at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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.” After King’s death in 1968, Jackson sang at his funeral and then largely withdrew from public political activities. In 1969, she published her autobiography Movin’ On Up.
Mahalia Jackson had 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.