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Mahalia Jackson (October 26, 1911 – January 27, 1972) was an African-Americanmarker gospel singer. With her powerful, distinct voice, Mahalia Jackson became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and is the first Queen of Gospel Music. She recorded about 35 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen "golds"—million-sellers. She had a contralto voice range.

Early Life

Mahalia Jackson, born Mahala Jackson, nicknamed “Halie," grew up in the Black Pearlmarker section of the Carrollton neighborhoodmarker of Uptown New Orleans, Louisianamarker. The three-room dwelling on Pitt Street housed thirteen people and a dog. This included Little Mahala (named after her aunt, whom the family called Aunt Duke), her brother Roosevelt, whom they called Peter, and her mother Charity. Several aunts and cousins lived in the house as well. Aunt Mahala was given the nickname "Duke".When Peter was born Halie suffered from genu varum, or "bowed legs." The doctors wanted to perform surgery by breaking Halie's legs, but one of the resident aunts opposed it. So Halie's mother would rub her legs down with greasy dishwater. The condition never stopped young Halie from performing her dance steps for the white woman her mother and Aunt Bell cleaned house for.

Mahalia was five when her mother, Charity, died, leaving her family to decide who would raise Halie and her brother. Aunt Duke assumed this responsibility, and the children were forced to work from sunup to sundown. Aunt Duke would always inspect the house using the "white glove" method. If the house was not cleaned properly, Halie was beaten with a "cat-o-nine-tails." If one of the other relatives was unable to do their chores, or clean at their job, Halie or one of her cousins was expected to perform that particular task. School was hardly an option. Halie loved to sing and church is where she loved to sing the most. Halie’s Aunt Bell told her that one day she would sing in front of royalty, a prediction that would eventually come true. Mahalia Jackson began her singing career at the local Mount Mariah Baptist Church. She was baptized in Mississippi by Mt. Moriah's pastor, the Rev. E. D. Lawrence, then went back to the church to "receive the right hand of fellowship."


1920s – 1940s

In 1927, at the age of sixteen, Jackson moved from the south to Chicago, Illinoismarker, in the midst of the Great Migration. After her first Sunday church service, where she had given an impromptu performance of her favorite song, "Hand Me Down My Favorite Trumpet, Gabriel", she was invited to join the Greater Salem Baptist Church Choir. She began touring the city's churches and surrounding areas with the Johnson Gospel Singers, one of the earliest professional gospel groups. In 1929 Jackson met the composer Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the Father of Gospel Music. He gave her musical advice, and in the mid-1930s they began a fourteen-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.

In 1936 Jackson married Isaac Lanes Grey Hockenhull ("Ike"), a graduate of Fisk University and Tuskegee Institutemarker, who was 10 years her senior. Mahalia refused to sing secular music, a pledge she would keep throughout her professional life. She was frequently offered money to do so and she divorced Isaac in 1941 because of his unrelenting pressure on her to sing secular music and his addiction to gambling on racehorses.

In 1931, Jackson recorded "You Better Run, Run, Run". Not much is known about this recording, and is impossible to find. Biographer Laurraine Goreau cites that it was also around this time she added 'i' to her name, changing it from Mahala to Mahalia, . At age 26, Mahalia's second set of records were recorded on May 21, 1937 under the Decca Coral label, accompanied by Estelle Allen (piano), in order; "God's Gonna Separate The Wheat From The Tares," "My Lord," "Keep Me Everyday," and "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away." Financially, these were not successful, and Decca let her go.

In 1947 she signed up with the Apollo label, and in 1948 recorded the William Herbert Brewster song "Move On Up A Little Higher", a recording so popular that stores could not stock enough copies of it to meet demand, selling an astonishing eight million copies. (The song was later honored with the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998). The success of this record rocketed Jackson to fame in the U.S. and soon after in Europe. During this time she toured as a concert artist, appearing more frequently in concert halls and less often in churches. As a consequences of this change in her venues, her arrangements expanded from piano and organ to orchestral accompaniments.

Other recordings received wide praise, including: "Let the Power of the Holy Ghost Fall on Me" (1949), which won the French Academy's Grand Prix du Disque; and "Silent Night, Holy Night", which became one of the best-selling singles in the history of Norwaymarker. When Jackson sang "Silent Night" on Denmarkmarker's national radio, more than twenty thousand requests for copies poured in. Other recordings on the Apollo label included "He Knows My Heart" (1946), "Amazing Grace" (1947), "Tired" (1947), "I Can Put My Trust in Jesus" (1949), "Walk with Me" (1949), "Let the Power of the Holy Ghost Fall on Me" (1949), "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (1950), "The Lord's Prayer" (1950), "How I Got Over" (1951), "His Eye is on the Sparrow" (1951), "I Believe" (1953), "Didn't It Rain" (1953), "Hands of God" (1953), and "Nobody Knows" (1954).


Mahalia Jackson died in Chicago on January 27, 1972 of heart failure and diabetes complications. Two cities paid tribute, Chicago and New Orleans. Beginning in Chicagomarker, outside the Greater Salem Baptist Church, 50,000 of the people who had known and loved Mahalia Jackson filed silently past her mahogany, glass-topped coffin in final tribute to the queen of gospel song. The next day, as many as could — 6,000 or more — filled every seat and stood along the walls of the city's public concert hall, the Arie Crown Theater of McCormick Place, for a two-hour funeral service. Mahalia's pastor, the Rev. Leon Jenkins, Mayor Richard J. Daley, Mrs. Coretta Scott King eulogized Mahalia during Chicago funeral as "a friend - proud, black and beautiful." Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald paid their respects. Dr. Joseph H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., of which Mahalia was Official Soloist, delivered the eulogy at Chicago funeral. Aretha Franklin, closed the Chicago rites with a moving rendition of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand".

Three days later, a thousand miles away, the scene repeated itself: again the long lines, again the silent tribute, again the thousands filling the great hall of the Rivergate Convention Center in downtown New Orleansmarker this time. Mayor Moon Landrieu and Louisiana Governor John J. McKeithen joined gospel singer Bessie Griffin; Dick Gregory praised 'Mahalia's "moral force" as main reason for her success", and Lou Rawls sang "Just a Closer Walk With Thee". The funeral cortège of 24 limousines drove slowly past her childhood place of worship, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, where her recordings played through loudspeakers. It made its way to Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, Louisianamarker where Jackson was entombed.Despite the inscription of Jackson's birth year on her headstone as 1912, she was actually born in 1911.

Jackson's estate was reported at "more than a million dollars". Some reporters estimated that record royalties, TV and movie residuals, and various investments made it worth more. The bulk of the estate was left to a number of relatives — many of whom cared for Mahalia during those lean years when she was just another young black girl in the South. Among principal heirs were relatives including her half-brother John Jackson and aunt Hannah Robinson. Neither ex-husband, Isaac Hockenhull (1936-1941) nor Sigmund Galloway (1964-1967), was noted in her will.

Mahalia Jackson is widely regarded as the greatest gospel singer in history and one of the great voices of the twentieth century. Her music was never played widely on any but traditional gospel and traditional Christian radio stations. Her music was heard for decades on Family Radio. Her good friend Martin Luther King Jr said, "A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium." She was a close friend of Doris Akers, one of the most prolific gospel composers of the 20th century. In 1958, they co-wrote the hit, "Lord, Don't Move The Mountain". Mahalia also sang many of Akers' own compositions such as, "God Is So Good To Me", "God Spoke To Me One Day", "Trouble", "Lead On, Lord Jesus", and "He's A Light Unto My Pathway", helping Doris to secure her position as the leading female Gospel composer of that time. In addition to sharing her singing talent with the world, she mentored the extraordinarily gifted Aretha Franklin. Mahalia was also good friends with Dorothy Norwood and fellow Chicago-based gospel singer Albertina Walker (Present Queen of Gospel Music). She also discovered a young Della Reese. Jackson was present at the opening night of Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Musicmarker in December 1957.On the twentieth anniversary of her passing, Smithsonian Folkways Recording commemorated Jackson with the album, I Sing Because I'm Happy, which includes interviews about her childhood conducted by Jules Scherwin.

The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences created the Gospel Music or Other Religious Recording category for Mahalia making her the first Gospel Music Artist to win the prestigious Grammy Award.

Among Mahalia's surviving relatives is her great-nephew, Indiana Pacers forward Danny Granger.

A prominent namesake in her native New Orleans is the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts, which was remodeled and reopened on 2009 January 17 with a gala ceremony featuring Placido Domingo, Patricia Clarkson, and the New Orleans Opera directed by Robert Dyall.

Selective awards and honors

Grammy Award history

Mahalia Jackson Grammy Award History
Year Category Title Genre Label Result
1976 Best Soul Gospel Performance "How I Got Over" Gospel Columbia Winner
1972 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
1969 Best Soul Gospel Performance "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" Gospel Columbia Nominee
1963 Best Gospel Or Other Religious Recording, Musical "Make A Joyful Noise Unto The Lord" Gospel Columbia Nominee
1962 Best Gospel Or Other Religious Recording "Great Songs Of Love And Faith" Gospel Columbia Winner
1961 Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording "Everytime I Feel the Spirit" Gospel Columbia Winner

Grammy Hall of Fame

Mahalia Jackson was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor artists whose recordings are at least twenty-five years old and have "qualitative or historical significance."

Grammy Hall of Fame Award
Year Recorded Song Genre Label Year Inducted
1947 "Move On Up A Little Higher" Gospel (Single) Apollo 1998


Mahalia Jackson Honors
Year Category Honor Result Notes
1998 U.S. Postal Service 32¢ Postage Stamp Honored Issued July 15, 1998
1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inducted "Early Influence"
1988 Hollywood Walk of Fame Star at 6840 Hollywood Blvd.
1978 Gospel Music Hall of Fame Inducted
2008 Louisiana Music Hall of Fame Inducted

In popular culture

She appears in the 1960 film, Jazz on a Summer's Day - an artistic documentary filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. She sings three gospel numbers at the end of the film, including "The Lord's Prayer."

In the movie "An American Crime" the song "Tell The World About This" is played on the first day of court.

In the movie Jungle Fever, the character played by Ossie Davis tries to distract himself from his son Gator's (Samuel L. Jackson) crack cocaine addiction by listening to Mahalia Jackson albums by the hour.

In the 1959 remake of the film Imitation of Life Mahalia Jackson portrays the choir soloist, singing "Trouble of the World" at Annie's funeral. She has no speaking lines, but her singing performance highlights the climactic scene.

In the
The Boondocks episode "Return of the King", a still-living Martin Luther King, Jr. laments over losing his iTunes password when he tried to download Mahalia Jackson's catalog.

She is referenced in the Denis Leary song "Elvis & I" when Leary sings "He says what the hell is Lisa Marie thinking with Michael Jackson crap, she should have married Jane or LaToya or Tito or even Mahalia Jackson".

In the 1994 "Wake Up Show Anthem" for the Los Angelesmarker radio station 92.3FM The Beatmarker, the rapper Ras Kass mentioned Jackson in his freestyle verse: "Come equip, your losing your paraphernalia /I'm a hip hop Apostle singing the Gospel like Mahalia Jackson".

She was an early influence on Irish soul singer Van Morrison, whose song "Summertime in England" (from 1980s Common One) refers to her by name: "The voice of Mahalia Jackson came through the ether."

Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon in Mobb Deep's song "Eye for an Eye" says, "But still/ write my will out to my seeds then build/ Mahalia sing a tale but the real we still kill."

In the Donna Summer song, "Dinner with Gershwin", she wants to "sing hymns with Mahalia."

Duke Ellington, with whom she occasionally recorded, paid tribute to her on his New Orleans Suite album with the song "Portrait of Mahalia Jackson."

In 2000 a musical about Mahalia Jackson was directed by Michael Wedekind.


  1. Mahalia Jackson.
  2. Larkin, Colin. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness (1995), page 2107 - ISBN 1561591769
  3. Lyman, Darryl. Great African-American Women, Jonathan David Company, Inc. (2005), page 132 - ISBN 0824604598
  4. Dixon, Robert M. W. Blues and Gospel Records: 1890-1943, Oxford University Press (1997), page 431 - ISBN 0198162391
  5. Koster, Rick. Louisiana Music: A Journey from R&B to Zydeco, Jazz to Country, Blues to Gospel, Cajun psMusic... (2002), Da Capo Press, page 271 - ISBN 0306810034
  6. Grammy Hall of Fame Award
  7. Stanton, Scott. The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians page 118
  8. Decca/Apollo recordings
  9. EBONY magazine April 1972: Two Cities Pay Tribute To Mahalia Jackson
  10. Providence Memorial Park
  11. EBONY magazine, April 1972
  12. Chicago Tribune - Studs Terkel talks about the opening night of the old town school.
  13. Theodore P. Mahne, "Star Emcee Patricia Clarkson Shares in the Excitement over Tonight's Opera Gala" in Times-Picayune, 2009 January 17, pp. C1, C3.
  14. Mahalia Jackson Grammy Award History Database
  15. Louisiana Music at the Grammy Awards List
  16. Lifetime Achievement Award List
  17. Grammy Hall of Fame
  18. "Move On Up A Little Higher" song
  19. Mahalia Jackson: 32¢ Postage Stamp

Further reading

  • Tony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, Limelight Editions, 1997, ISBN 0-87910-034-6.
  • Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel, Elliott and Clark, 1995, ISBN 0-252-06877-7.
  • Laurraine Goreau, Just Mahalia, Baby, Waco, TX: World Books, 1975.
  • Jesse Jackson, Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord! : The Life of Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel Singers, T.Y. Crowell, 1974.
  • Mahalia Jackson, Movin On Up Hawthorn Books, 1966.
  • Hettie Jones, Big Star Fallin' Mama : Five Women in Black Music, Viking Press, 1974.
  • Jules Schwerin, Got to Tell It : Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel, Oxford Univ. Press, 1992, ISBN 0195071441.
  • Bob Darden, People Get Ready : A New History of Black Gospel Music, New York: Continuum, 2004. ISBN 0826414362
  • Jean Gay Cornell, Mahalia Jackson: Queen of Gospel Song, Champaign, Ill., Garrard Pub. Co., 1974. ISBN 0811645819

External links

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