Mahalia Jackson: Gospel Roots - The Queen Of Gospel

Monday 1st August 1994

Tony Cummings charts the life and achievements of MAHALIA JACKSON.

Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson

Even now, 22 years after her death, her name evokes the kind of reverence normally reserved for the Mahatma Gandhi's and John F Kennedy's of this world. Once named one of the 20 most admired people in the world, Mahalia Jackson was arguably the most popular singer in the history of Christian music - whose message reached ghetto tenements and presidential palaces, was echoed from concert halls and beamed from television satellites and touched millions: black and white, rich and poor, Christian and unsaved. Mahalia Jackson was a megastar -gospel music's first. She was also a faithful servant to a faithful Father by the demands to sing non-gospel ("I couldn't sing the blues or sing in a nightclub...couldn't let Him down").

Mahalia was born on 26 October in 1912 in the very cradle of jazz, New Orleans. Her father, the Rev Clark, was a minister at St John The Baptist Church in a rickety one-room building which doubled for the negro schoolroom during the week.

For the 13 men, women and children crammed into Mahalia's bare waterfront home, there was little to look forward to but working drudgery - if work could be found.

Singing came to Mahalia, nicknamed 'Halie' by her sisters, as natural as speech. Her first song was a hymn taught her by an old man who sunned himself on the levee, "Oh Pal Oh God". But soon the growing child was singing "Balling The Jack" and the other 'jazz' songs that were emerging into the turbulent singing, dancing, musical city of New Orleans.

But such behaviour had to be kept secret. The Clark home was a strict Baptist one. No low-down jazz, no cards, no high life. But theirs was far from a dour environment. There was laughter in her home and joy in her church. There, the 'jubilees' were quick to bring the shout, quick to feel the Spirit. With a voice twice as big as she was, Halie sang loud and clear, "Oh Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, Gabriel" and a dozen more blunt metaphors of stark faith and spiritual transcendence. The most famous red light district in America, Storyville, was spilling over with a new kind of exciting, syncopated music. But in the church it was the hymns of Isaac Watts and John Newton Africanised into brooding moans and ecstatic shouts, which held sway. Only when she babysat would Mahalia have a chance to hear the records of her favourite blues singer, Bessie Smith. But mainly it was the church which dominated her young life.

In 1927 Mahalia moved to Chicago to live with an auntie. There, after an intense spiritual experience emotively described in Laurraine Coreau's fine biography 'Mahalia' the 14-year-old Mahalia was converted. She was baptised and the day after her baptism told her sister Celie, "I have a new look, I have a desire to serve the Lord in spirit and in truth." "You always had that," injected Celie. "He told me to open my mouth in his name," responded Mahalia.

She was soon doing just that. Working as a maid for a prosperous white family, her weekends and evenings were taken up singing the gospel. In 1928 she met a composer of new gospel songs, Thomas Dorsey. Mahalia would sing on a street corner demonstrating the new songs while Dorsey sold copies of the sheet music at 10 cents each. Not everyone was enamoured with Mahalia's joyous, strident singing: uninhibited handclapping made staider Baptist ministers unhappy. One even denounced her from the pulpit. But Mahalia remained faithful to her calling.

Mahalia's group the Johnson Singers began to do more and more church gospel programmes. But the grim reality of the Depression ensured that the offerings had dwindled to nickels and dimes.

Then in 1936 she was introduced to J Mayo Williams, an extraordinary entrepreneur who worked as a talent scout for the Decca Records' Race Records Division. Four songs were recorded for Decca in May 1937. The release of "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away" didn't change much for Mahalia. The record sold poorly except for a few sales in the deep South. Legendary jazzman Louis Armstrong heard Mahalia sing and asked her to sing blues with his New Orleans jazz band. Mahalia would have none of it. "Child, I been reborn" was her perfunctory response. By 1938 the tide was turning for the impoverished gospel singer. The Johnson Sisters played their last gospel programme and Mahalia was receiving more calls to perform in church concerts than she could handle.

Mahalia was asked to sing at the National Baptist Convention - virtually unknown to whites but the largest religious gathering in the USA. Recognition, of sorts, was hers. Mahalia managed to scrape together enough to open a beauty shop in Chicago. She still travelled widely for gospel programmes.

In 1942 she was offered the directorship of St Luke Baptist, Chicago. But mainly it was touring, reaching out into tents, churches, concert halls, wherever 'revivals' were being held. She took other singers with her, one she spotted in a Detroit church at 13 who, when she changed her name a decade later from Dellareese Taliagerror to Delia Reese, made it in showbiz. But this work was a long way from showbiz bright lights; just 20-hour drives to play in ghetto church halls. Only the Lord kept her going. Then came Mahalia's big break. In 1946, after a show in Chicago she was approached by Johnny Meyers, the most famous promoter in black gospel. He offered the singer a gig at the Golden Gate - the gospel Mecca in New York City - for a fee of $1,000. She tore the roof off and afterwards was approached by Bess Berman, a Jewish entrepreneur who ran Apollo Records.

Apollo was a big and growing rhythm and blues label, one of the dozens of independent companies which sprang up in the immediate post-war years. Apollo knew nothing about gospel music but they wanted to give Mahalia and gospel a shot as part of a new ethnic series that put calypso, gypsy, Hawaiian, western, polkas - anything for which there might be an audience - onto the market.

Meyers had already persuaded Bess Berman to record gospel's famous Georgia Peach and the Dixie Hummingbirds. Mahalia would be one more shot into the unknown for Apollo. Jazz musician Art Freeman, who doubled as Apollo's A&R man, was put in charge of Mahalia's first Apollo recording session on 3 October 1946.

Four songs were cut. The first released, "I'm Going To Tell God" didn't sell very well. But Mahalia was also introduced to Harry Lenetska, an agent who, when working with the massive William Morris Agency had booked Ella Fitzgerald, the Ink Spots and others and was now out on his own. Harry went to see Mahalia sing at church; was awestruck and agreed to handle Mahalia's bookings even with her strict specification "no nightclubs and no theatres".

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Reader Comments

Posted by Maggie in London @ 14:59 on Oct 29 2015

Dear Mr Cummings

A great article on Mahalia Jackson. I just wanted to know if Ms Jackson came to London in the 60s. As my mother talked about listening to Ms Jackson sing in a concert hall without the aid of a microphone. She said it was enough to make her cry.

Many thanks

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