Mahalia Jackson was born in New Orleans on October 26, 1911. Jackson, often called the “Queen of Gospel,” was one of the nation’s most renowned gospel singers whose signature voice earned her international acclaim.
Jackson grew up in the Black Pearl area of New Orleans and attended McDonogh 24 (now Banneker Elementary). Jackson started singing at the age of 4 at Mount Moriah Baptist Church. But she would really find her voice as a member of the choir at Greater Salem Baptist Church in Chicago, where she had moved at 16-years-old with members of her family.
Jackson’s reputation as a great gospel singer spread throughout Chicago and she was invited to sing at other churches in the city. She also joined the group, The Johnson Gospel Singers, which performed throughout the city.
In Chicago, Jackson worked as a laundress in a hotel, as a beautician and in a flower shop. She listened to Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Paul Robeson. Jackson remembered the brass bands of her New Orleans youth and the music of the sanctified church next to her childhood home.
All of this influenced her singing style. Gospel composer Thomas Dorsey noticed Jackson’s unique voice when he asked her to record his songs, including what would become one of her signature pieces, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
In 1946, Jackson signed with Apollo Records. A year later she recorded the hit “Move on Up a Little Higher,” which sold millions of copies. According to biography.com, it was the highest-selling gospel single in history at the time.
In 1950, Jackson sang at Carnegie Hall. It was a historic moment.
“Who would have thought that a little barefooted girl from Louisiana who played ball along the levee by the Mississippi River would someday stand on the stage at Carnegie Hall,” she later said.
Jackson had a number of hits throughout her career, including “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” “In the Upper Room” and “How I Got Over,” to name a few.
Jackson signed with Columbia Records in 1954 and her popularity reached remarkable heights. The singer performed extensively throughout Europe. She also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, sang with Louis Armstrong at The Newport Jazz Festival and performed with Duke Ellington at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970. Jackson was also featured in two movies St. Louis Blues and Imitation of Life.
The renowned gospel singer appeared at a number of historic events.
Jackson performed at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. She sang at the 1963 March on Washington and while there, encouraged Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to tell the audience about his “dream.” King’s “I Have a Dream” speech would become one of the most iconic speeches in history. Five years later Jackson paid tribute to the civil rights leader, singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” one of King’s favorite songs, at his funeral in 1968.
The gospel legend died on January 27, 1972, of heart disease. She was 60. It was reported that between 45,000 and 50,000 mourners attended her funeral in New Orleans to pay their respects.
Mahalia Jackson’s legacy lives on in New Orleans. The Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts is located in Louis Armstrong Park and there’s also the Mahalia Jackson Elementary School in the city.
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