She was born in 1911 (although some authorities cite 1912) in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mahalia was the third child but her mother died when she was four and her father sent her to live with her aunt Mahalia "Duke" Paul. Aunt Duke was a devout Christian and would not have secular music in the house but did encourage young Mahalia to sing hymns and old-time gospel tunes around the house and at church. Her cousin introduced her to singers like Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Enrico Caruso and Ma Rainey, which influenced Mahalia’s own soulful style. In 1927 she relocated to Chicago and found work as a domestic. Soon she established herself as a popular soloist at churches and funerals. Her unique contralto voice caught the attention of many small churches from coast to coast and gradually her reputation grew. She also sang with The Johnson Brothers (sons of the paster), one of the earliest professional gospel groups. Mahalia started her solo career in 1937 after the Johnson Brothers act broke up. Her first release on the Decca label, "God's Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares" which only had moderate success.
Mahalia resigned herself to a career out with show business and became a beautician. Throughout the War years she sang and toured with composer Thomas A. Dorsey at gospel tents and churches. In 1946 she was back in the studio, this time with Apollo Records. "I Want to Rest" and "He Knows My Heart," fared poorly but Art Freeman insisted she record W. Herbert Brewster's "Move on Up a Little Higher" which was released in 1948.
The single became the best-selling gospel record and was a huge success in both US and Europe. Later "I Can Put My Trust in Jesus" was a hit in France and “Silent Night" sold incredibly well in Norway.
Mahalia’s shows were packed when she appeared in Europe. In 1954 another record company switch took her to Columbia where she attained broad recognition as a spiritual singer. The same year she began hosting her own Sunday night radio show for CBS and was surrounded by talented musicians like Mildred Falls (pianist) and Ralph Jones (organist). She regularly appeared with a white four piece led by musical director Jack Halloran. Audiences loved the gospel mixed with close harmonies and the program established Mahalia as a star. Her continued commercial success however brought criticism from some of her diehard fans who felt she had abandoned her black roots in gospel. She performed on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956 where she catapulted gospel music into America's mainstream. Mahalia appeared to rapturous applause, two years later at the Newport Jazz Festival. She had requested a special all-gospel program and the organizers obliged.
Despite her gospel appeal Columbia insisted she record with orchestras and choirs, after the phenomenal response to an album with Percy Faith. Mahalia Jackson made her film debut in 1959 as the choir soloist, singing "Trouble of the World" at Annie's (Juanita Moore) funeral, in the remake of the film "Imitation of Life" with Lana Turner.
Well established Mahalia never forgot her roots and became a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement and was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She performed at many of his rallies singing old slave spirituals. At the same time the much respected diva was invited to sing for President Dwight Eisenhower and at John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball in 1960. As the fifties had been kind to Mahalia sadly the next decade saw a decline in her fortunes. Mahalia was badly advised re investments and lost a lot of her savings. As music tastes altered her record sales declined. She did however pay a fitting tribute to her friend Dr Martin Luther King Jnr., and sang "Precious Lord"; at his funeral, in 1968.
After the death of her friend she retired from the political front. Mahalia’s last performance was in concert in Germany in 1971 and she died in 1972, aged 59.
Worth a listen:
Move On Up A Little Higher (1948)
Trouble of the World
He’s got the whole world in his hands (1958)
Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho (1958)
Lord's Prayer (1958)
Amazing Grace (1960)
Go Tell It on the Mountain
Take My Hand, Precious Lord
Holding My Saviour's Hands
Roll Jordan, Roll
The Upper Room
We Shall Overcome
I'm on My Way to Canaan