The “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson was the first performer to take African-American gospel singing beyond the religious services where it originated. Beginning her career in small churches Jackson grew in popularity until she became the most famous gospel singer of all time. Her unique, emotional style, punctuated with shouts of joy and moans of grief, and her forceful presentation of traditional spirituals inspired her audiences, often moving her listeners to tears. Using her talent and reputation in support of the civil rights movement, Jackson participated in the Montgomery bus boycott and sang “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned” at the 1963 March on Washington, before her friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Jackson was born in New Orleans. Her mother died when she was five. Until she was fifteen she was raised by her mother’s sister, who lived next door to the Sanctified Church. There, Jackson witnessed the tremendously expressive music the congregation made at their services, singing, clapping, and stomping their feet. Around this time, her cousin introduced her to the blues recordings of Bessie Smith and others. By the time she was a teenager, Jackson had dropped out of school to work as a laundress. She soon left New Orleans and moved to Chicago to live with another aunt.
In Chicago, Jackson joined the Great Salem Baptist Church and began singing in its choir. She and several other young members of the congregation joined to form the Johnson Gospel Singers, a group that sang first in other local churches and later traveled throughout the Midwest performing at churches and revivals. The group made very little money, and Jackson continued to do laundry for white families to support herself. After marrying Isaac Hockenhull, a postman who had studied chemistry in college, she opened a beauty salon using her husband’s formulas for cosmetics. Her husband pressured her to give up singing in churches and to try to break into the more lucrative jazz and blues music industry. Jackson refused and the couple split.
In 1937, Jackson made her first recording under the guidance of the great gospel composer, Thomas A. Dorsey. She worked closely with Dorsey for the next ten years, traveling all over the country singing. Dorsey wrote songs especially for Jackson and served as her accompanist. Jackson’s performances helped to increase the popularity of her recordings; in 1946, her recording of “Move On Up a Little Higher” sold more than two million copies. She became the official soloist of the National Baptist Convention in 1947. Around this time, Jackson was regularly featured on Studs Terkel’s radio program; later she would host her own radio and television shows.
During the 1950s and 60s, Jackson appeared regularly in support of the civil rights and anti-war movements. When her home on Chicago’s South Side was vandalized by a white neighbor, Jackson appeared on Edward R. Murrow’s television show, Person-to-Person. She was subsequently invited to appear on other talk and variety shows, including The Dinah Shore Show and The Ed Sullivan Show.
Jackson performed a European tour in the early 1960s, in spite of her failing health. She became involved in several entrepreneurial efforts, including a chain of stores called “Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken System,” as well as numerous real estate ventures. She also worked to establish the Mahalia Jackson Scholarship Foundation. By this time, she made few public appearances, though her recordings remained popular. Jackson died in 1971; at her funeral, she was honored by many in the music community and members of the congregations she performed for throughout her life.