General critical consensus holds Mahalia Jackson as the greatest gospel singer ever to live; a major crossover success whose popularity extended across racial divides, she was gospel’s first superstar, and even decades after her death remains, for many listeners, a defining symbol of the music’s transcendent power. With her singularly expressive contralto, Jackson continues to inspire the generations of vocalists who follow in her wake; among the first spiritual performers to introduce elements of blues into her music, she infused gospel with a sensuality and freedom it had never before experienced, and her artistry rewrote the rules forever. Born in one of the poorest sections of New Orleans on October 26, 1911, Jackson made her debut in the children’s choir of the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church at the age of four, and within a few years was a prominent member of the Mt. Moriah Baptist’s junior choir. Raised next door to a sanctified church, she was heavily influenced by their brand of gospel, with its reliance on drums and percussion over piano; another major inspiration was the blues of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
By the time she reached her mid-teens, then, Jackson‘s unique vocal style was fully formed, combining the full-throated tones and propulsive rhythms of the sanctified church and the deep expressiveness of the blues with the note-bending phrasing of her Baptist upbringing. After quitting school during the eighth grade, Jackson relocated to Chicago in 1927, where she worked as a maid and laundress; within months of her arrival, she was singing leads with the choir at the Greater Salem Baptist Church, where she joined the three sons of her pastor in their group the Johnson Brothers. Although other small choir groups had cut records in the past, the Johnson Brothers might have been the first professional gospel unit ever; the first organized group to play the Chicago church circuit, they even produced a series of self-written musical dramas in which Jackson assumed the lead role. Her provocative performing style — influenced by the Southern sanctified style of keeping time with the body and distinguished by jerks and steps for physical emphasis — enraged many of the more conservative Northern preachers, but few could deny her fierce talent.
After the members of the Johnson Brothers went their separate ways during the mid-’30s, Jackson began her solo career accompanied by pianist Evelyn Gay, who herself later went on to major fame as one half of gospel’s Gay Sisters. During the week, Jackson also went to beauty school, and soon opened her own salon. As her reputation as a singer grew throughout the Midwest, in 1937 she made her first recordings for Decca, becoming the first gospel artist signed to the label; curiously, none of the tracks she recorded during her May 21 session was by Thomas A. Dorsey, the legendary composer for whom she began working as a song demonstrator around that same time. (He even wrote “Peace in the Valley” with her in mind.) While her Decca single “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares” sold only modestly, prompting a lengthy studio hiatus, Jackson‘s career continued on the upswing — she soon began performing live in cities as far away as Buffalo, New Orleans, and Birmingham, becoming famous in churches throughout the country for not only her inimitable voice but also her flirtatious stage presence and spiritual intensity.
Jackson did not record again until 1946, signing with Apollo Records; although her relations with the label were often strained, the work she produced during her eight-year stay on their roster was frequently brilliant. While her first Apollo recordings, including “I Want to Rest” and “He Knows My Heart” fared poorly — so much so, in fact, that the label almost dropped her — producer Art Freeman insisted Jackson record W. Herbert Brewster’s “Move on Up a Little Higher”; released in early 1948, the single became the best-selling gospel record of all time, selling in such great quantities that stores could not even meet the demand. Virtually overnight, Jackson became a superstar; beginning in 1950, she became a regular guest on journalist Studs Terkel‘s Chicago television series, and among White intellectuals and jazz critics, she acquired a major cult following based in large part on her eerie similarities to Bessie Smith. In 1952, her recording of “I Can Put My Trust in Jesus” even won a prize from the French Academy, resulting in a successful tour of Europe — her rendition of “Silent Night” even became one of the all-time best-selling records in Norway’s history.
Jackson‘s success soon reached such dramatic proportions that in 1954 she began hosting her own weekly radio series on CBS, the first program of its kind to broadcast the pure, sanctified gospel style over national airwaves. The show surrounded her with a supporting cast which included not only pianist Mildred Falls and organist Ralph Jones, but also a White quartet led by musical director Jack Halloran; although her performances with Halloran‘s group moved Jackson far away from traditional gospel towards an odd hybrid which crossed the line into barbershop quartet singing, they proved extremely popular with White audiences, and her transformation into a true crossover star was complete. Also in 1954 she signed to Columbia, scoring a Top 40 hit with the single “Rusty Old Halo,” and two years later made her debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. However, with Jackson‘s success came the inevitable backlash — purists decried her music’s turn toward more pop-friendly production, and as her fame soared, so did her asking price, so much so that by the late ’50s, virtually no Black churches could afford to pay her performance fee.
A triumphant appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival solidified Jackson‘s standing among critics, but her records continued moving her further away from her core audience — when an LP with Percy Faith became a smash, Columbia insisted on more recordings with orchestras and choirs; she even cut a rendition of “Guardian Angels” backed by comic Harpo Marx. In 1959, she appeared in the film Imitation of Life, and two years later sang at John F. Kennedy’s Presidential inauguration. During the ’60s, Jackson was also a confidant and supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, and at his funeral sang his last request, “Precious Lord”; throughout the decade she was a force in the civil rights movement, but after 1968, with King and the brothers Kennedy all assassinated, she retired from the political front. At much the same time, Jackson went through a messy and very public divorce, prompting a series of heart attacks and the rapid loss of over a hundred pounds; in her last years, however, she recaptured much of her former glory, concluding her career with a farewell concert in Germany in 1971. She died January 27, 1972.