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Mahalia Jackson Biography

Updated on January 7, 2017

Early Years

Mahalia Jackson was born on October 26, 1911 in New Orleans, Louisiana; at birth she was nicknamed "Halie". Her earliest memories and influences were the sights and sounds of New Orleans, steamships on the Mississippi, jazz bands playing in the streets, and the music of Bessie Smith; However, young Mahalia was to find her greatest inspiration at the local Baptist church. Mahalia was five years old when her mother died; her Aunt Duke assumed guardianship of Mahalia and her brother. Aunt Duke was a strict disciplinary; Mahalia and her cousins was often forced to work eight plus hours a day. Aunt Duke would use the "white glove" test to check their cleaning. If the house wasn't cleaned correctly, Mahalia would often get a beating. Also, if one of the other family members wasn't able to clean, Mahalia or one of her cousins was expected to do the work. One source of joy for young Mahalia was singing; as often as she could, she sang at Mount Mariah Baptist church. Impressed with her niece's singing, Mahalia's other aunt "Aunt Bell " told her that she would sing for kings and queens some day; this was a prediction that would come true in time. When Mahalia turned sixteen, and to get away from Aunt Duke, she moved to Chicago in 1927; this was during the period known as the Great Migration; after attending her first church service, and giving a belief performance, Mahala was invited to join the Choir at Salem Baptist Church in Chicago. As a result of this affiliation, she was befriended and begun touring with the Johnson Brothers(an early professional Gospel group).

Solo Singing Career

Although the Johnson Brothers broke up in the 30's, it didn't stop young Mahalia from singing; in 1929, during her time with the Johnson Brothers, Mahalia was introduced to composer Thomas A. Dorsey; he shared his musical wisdom with Mahalia; as a result, they went on a concert tour with Mahalia singing Dorsey's songs in various church and convention centers nationwide. His composition " Take my hand precious Lord " became Mahalia's defining song. One of the first record labels she recorded for was Decca Records in the late 1930s; her records sales weren't good so Decca let her go. In 1936 Mahalia Jackson was married; she married a graduate of Fisk University named Isaac Hockenhull. Despite the money offered Mahalia, and the pressure from her husband to sing secular music, Mahalia refused. Later in 1941, when Mahalia couldn't stand it any more, she divorced Issac Hockenhull, because of his addiction to gambling, and the pressure he was putting on her to sing secular music. In 1946, Mahalia Jackson signed with Apollo Records. While she was with Apollo records, she recorded several records that initially had slow sales, but in time would become legendary hits. One song released in 1948 that helped to make her popular was "Move on up a Little Higher". Because of the demand for this record, stores were having difficulty keeping this hit song in stock. Mahalia would go on to become famous first in the United States, and later in Europe. Some other hits Mahalia had under the Apollo label included "Amazing Grace"(1947), "Go tell it on the mountain"(1950), and "How I got over"(1951).

a chat with Elvis
a chat with Elvis

International fame

In the early 1950s Mahalia became the first African American gospel artist to sing at Carnegie Hall. Later in 1952, she toured Europe, and sang to capacity crowds. In 1954, Mahalia signed a contract with Columbia Records; Her debut album at Columbia was called "The Worlds greatest Gospel Singer". It was during this time she was criticized by some gospel critics saying she had watered down her sound to have a better mainstream appeal. Also, during this time she appeared in a couple of movies such as St. Louis Blues, and the 1959 film Imitation of life. In 1957 Mahalia was the main Gospel music attraction at the Newport Jazz Festival, and she sang for President John F. Kennedy at his inauguration in 1961. Later, in 1963 she sang for over 250,000 people at the March on Washington; this was when Dr. Martin Luther King made his world famous "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1964, she was married again to Sigmund Galloway, but the marriage only lasted a short time. During 1963,1967, 1968 and for the last time in 1969 she toured Europe. When Dr .King was assassinated, Mahalia sang at his funeral.

Mahala Jackson was a lot more than a singer; she started the Mahalia Jackson Scholarship Foundation, to help youth attend college, and she was active in the Civil Rights movement until her health failed her. Also, for acting as a good will ambassador to the world, she received the Silver Dove Award. In the business world, Mahalia opened a beauty parlor, florist shop, and made some investments in real estate. In addition, Mahalia mentored Aretha Franklin and is credited with discovering Della Reese; she was also good friends with gospel legends Dorothy Norwood and Albertina Walker and of course Dr Martin Luther King.

Death

Having ignored the advice of her physician to slow down, Mahalia decided to performed in Munich, Germany anyway; during her 1971 concert tour she collapsed. Upon returning from her tour of Germany, she made one of her last television appearances on The Flip Wilson Show. Mahalia Jackson departed this life on January 27, 1972. Two cities paid tribute to her Chicago and New Orleans. In Chicago at Salem Baptist Church, 50,000 people were in attendance; The Eulogy was given by the president of the National Baptist Convention, and Aretha Franklin closed the Chicago service with a powerful rendition of "Precious Lord take my hand". A few days later, at the New Orleans service thousands filled the Rivergate Convention Center in downtown New Orleans, to pay their respects. Following the New Orleans service, Mahalia Jackson was laid to rest in Metairie, Louisiana.

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    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      What a great tribute to a super great super lady! Mahalia Jackson was one of my mother's favorite - she would play so many of her songs - and we'd kind of have to stop what we were doing and pay homage.

      Thanks for this wonderful hub!

      Carolyn

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      Hi Carolyn

      I know what you mean; my mom use to listen to Mahalia Jackson when we were kids. It brings tears to my eyes to listen to her sing even now; she is a truly gifted singer. Glad you enjoyed reading this article.

      Thank you for stopping by

      Carla

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      She is one of the greats, although I am not overly knowledgeable about this type of music. Just when I was starting to grasp what jazz was about, rock took over. I do recall an interview with one of the Blues singers who said it was kind of a religious dedication to sing Gospel and considered something of a sacrilege when she turned to secular music. I don't recall who it was.

    • profile image

      PWalker281 7 years ago

      Thanks again, Coolmon, for another valuable history lesson. I believe Mahalia Jackson is indeed the greatest gospel singer ever. And yes, my mother had several of her albums and loved to listen to her music. I remember seeing her on several "variety" shows in the 60s, including Ed Sullivan.

    • Mystique1957 profile image

      Mystique1957 7 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela

      Exquisite hub, my dear Coolmon! As a Jazz lover I enjoyed the whole biography, I didn`t know of Mahalia. thanks for sharing it! I got my chance also to poke a bit about Della Reese, who`s dear to my heart from "Touched by an angel".

      Two thumbs up!

      Warm regards,

      Mystique

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @dahoglund - yes you are correct Mahalia Jackson was very dedicated to singing Gospel music; It was a promise she made herself to sing only that type of music. Thank you for your feedback.

    • amulets profile image

      amulets 7 years ago from Singapore

      Her songs are just fantastic. I enjoyed reading and listening them. Thanks for sharing.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @PWalker281 - Yes you are correct she was on many of the popular variety shows in the 1960's; she is one of the great Gospel singers. Sounds like your mom had quite the Mahalia collection. Thanks for your comments.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Mystique1957 - Glad this article was educational for you. Mahalia was truly one of the greats. Glad to hear you like the TV show Touched by an Angel; that was on of my favorite shows when it was prime time. I hope you enjoy your self seeing what Della Reese is about.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @amulets - I am glad you enjoyed reading this hub; thanks for stopping by.

    • Truth From Truth profile image

      Truth From Truth 7 years ago from Michigan

      Great hub on a very talented Lady, both in music talent and in mentoring. Thanks.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 7 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Thanks, you're educating me on our musical heritage. Keep these hubs coming. When you get a chance check out Big Mama Thornton on YouTube. She was one of the best in Detroit. Now the best is Thornetta Davis. Except for Aretha Franklin, of course who follows in the footsteps of Mahalia Jackson. She lives not far from me. Here's a link to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" later made into a big hit by Elvis.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XUAg1_A7IE

      Thornetta Davis video

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTw3tNZPyxw&fea...

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Truth From Truth - thank you for your feedback

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Ralph Deeds - Sounds interesting; I bet Aretha has a nice place; Thank you for stopping by, and thank you for the link I will check it out

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 7 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 7 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Aretha--a more recent "Bridge Over Troubled Water"

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkqyLsDqgv0&fea...

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Ralph Deeds - Thank you for sending me the three links I watched all three and i was impressed.

      Aretha Franklin - Bridge Over Troubled Water - never saw her play a piano before she seem very comfortable playing and singing in her usual blues/soulful style singing. This is a very good performance

      Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" - This was the first time I have seen video of this lady. I was impressed with the strength of her voice she could give Mahalia Jackson a run for the money. Her performance is impressive.

      Thornetta Davis on Blues Detroit Style - I like her voice I could see her doing a duet with BB King or singing a duet with Ray Charles.

      Thank you for taking the time to send these links. I got an education tonight

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Ralph Deeds - Thank you for the second Aretha Franklin link; This performance was as impressive as the first one(if not more so) you sent me. Thank you for sharing

    • cojaqmarketing profile image

      cojaqmarketing 7 years ago from Carmel, Indiana

      I'm short on words...all that I can say is awesome!

      Jeremy

    • ladyjane1 profile image

      ladyjane1 7 years ago from Texas

      What a great tribute for a great lady. I got goosebumps on my arms listening to her singing and being a lover of Elvis's gospel music I can see that he took a lot of inspiration from her. You can almost hear it in his voice. Great hub.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @cojaqmarketing - thanks you for your kind words; Glad you enjoyed reading it

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @ladyjane1 - I understand what you mean; when i watched and listened to Mahalia's videos; it made me tearful - thank you for stopping by

    • prettydarkhorse profile image

      prettydarkhorse 7 years ago from US

      wonderful cool, keep them coming, you keep on featuring people with talents and great works, and I am very glad because most of them are not in the limelight, glad to know them, Thanks so much cool, maita

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @prettydarkhorse - Thank you for the kind words Maita

    • prettydarkhorse profile image

      prettydarkhorse 7 years ago from US

      I love Aretha Franklin too, now I know why Aretha is so great she has Mahalia as her mentor too, I came by again hehe, Maita

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Oh what an incredible woman she was. Mahalia really knew how to sing the holy music and still can move me to tears. Thanks so much for creating this wonderful tribute to a very important woman, lest we forget.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @prettydarkhorse - Yes Aretha had quite the teacher; it is ok and nice of you to stop by again :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Dolores Monet - Yes she is a very gifted singer; glad you enjoyed reading this article

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 7 years ago

      Very good hub Coolmon2009. This is such true, real history. Thank you for telling her story.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Micky Dee - Thank you for your feedback

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      What a powerful voice she had! Enjoyed this!

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @habee - Thank you for your kind words; nice to see you again :)

    • AEvans profile image

      Julianna 7 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

      I am so familiar with Mahalia what a great part of Black History and culture in the U.S. she was an Icon as far as I am concerned and her songs of Praise was a blessing. I love the oldies we have her classics in our collection, even though we are still young she was and is an inspiration to so many, thank you for writing about her. :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @AEvans - I am glad you enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for your feedback.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Mahalia is one of the true greats of music. Thanks so much for this very beautiful tribute to her.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @tonymac04 - Once again, thank you for leaving feedback :)

    • Support Med. profile image

      Support Med. 6 years ago from Michigan

      A definite gifted artist. Didn't know about her upbringing, glad for her spunk to get on up out of there. And the same was true when she married, she didn't let them stand in her way. Strong/annointed and much integrity. I really enjoy hearing her sing 'Calvary' as well. Voted-up/rated!

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Support Med - You are right she was quite the lady. I am glad you enjoyed reading this article :)

    • bodylevive profile image

      BODYLEVIVE 6 years ago from Alabama, USA

      Thank you for writing about Mahalia, she's one of the greatest gospel singers of all times.Voted up!

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      @bodylevive - Yes she is one of the greats; thanks for your comments.

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 6 years ago

      Hey there Coolmon! I never tire of your hubs. God bless you Dear!

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Micky Dee - Thank you for your comments, God Bless you too :)

    • profile image

      Travis 6 years ago

      Mahalia is my favorite gospel singer. Both my grandmothers used to play her record. I remember when my late great grandmother favorite movie was "Imitation of Life". The whole house had to be quiet when Mahalia sang "Trouble of the World". Mahalia introduced sunday morning worship to the world.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Travis - I know what you mean, Mahalia is a powerful gifted gospel singer. Thanks for your feedback on this article.

    • profile image

      kylar 6 years ago

      she waz aamazing women!!!!!!!!!:)

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      @kylar - Yes she was quite a lady. Thanks for your comments on this article.

    • profile image

      moriah 6 years ago

      i think that she .was a good women and did thing for god in sing

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
      Author

      Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      @moriah - Yes I agree. She praised god in song. Thanks for your comments :)

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