October 2011

Mahalia Jackson, May 17, 1957, at the Prayer Pilgrimage of Freedom, Washington, D.C.

Just Mahalia, Baby!

Celebrating the 100th birthday of gospel’s greatest singer

One hundred years ago this month, on October 26, 1911, Mahalia Jackson was born in the Black Pearl section of the Carrrolton neighborhood in New Orleans. Her mother, Charity Clark, worked as a maid and a laundress; her father, John A. Jackson, Sr., was a stevedore and a barber who later became a Baptist minister. Mrs. Jackson died when Mahalia was five years old, leaving her and her brother to be raised by her aunt, Mahala Clark-Paul, known as “Aunt Duke,” a demanding woman who would beat young Halie, as Mahalia was known, if she didn’t clean the house thoroughly enough that no dust would rub off onto Aunt Duke’s white gloves. Mahalia's biggest joy as a child was singing in church, and she began doing so regularly at Mount Mariah Baptist Church, where she was baptized by the Rev. E.D. Lawrence.

In 1927 16-year-old Mahalia moved to Chicago and caused an immediate sensation when she sang “Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, Gabriel” in church and was invited to join the Greatr Salem Baptist Church Choir. She began touring churches in Chicago and surrounding areas with the Johnson Gospel Singers, and in 1929 met the Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music, who became her mentor. They would tour together for 14 years beginning in the mid-‘30s, introducing his songs in churches and at conventions, with Mahalia making his “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” her signature song. In a July 1974 interview with Alfred Duckett for Black World Magazine, Dorsey described Mahalia as “a self-made person with an unusual voice, and even more unusual was the way she handled it. She could throw her voice where she wanted, any way she wanted--at will. Tehre were lots of ups and downs in Mahalia’s life. Although we had trials when we traveled together, we also did a lot of traveling in style.”

Mahalia Jackson’s 1947 recording of Rev. H.W. Brewster’s ‘Move On Up a Little Higher, Pt. 2,’ the first million selling gospel record. Herbert James ‘Blind’ Francis is on organ, James Lee is on piano. ‘Move On Up a Little Higher, Parts 1 & 2, released during the 1947 Christmas season, demonstrated for the first time on wax not only the depth and breadth of Jackson’s mighty voice but also her clever use of subtle, almost meditative nuances. The record broke new territory and placed Jackson squarely on the path to global recognition.’ --Opal Louis Nations, liner notes for Mahalia Jackson: How I Got Over--The Apollo Sessions 1946-1954.

Her recording career began in 1931 with “You Better Run, Run, Run,” so obscure a recording a copy of it has never been found. In 1937 she cut four sides with Decca Coral, but was released from her contract when the records didn’t sell. In 1947 she signed with the Apollo label, recorded the Rev. W.H. Brewster’s “Move On Up a Little Higher” and found herself a gospel star of the first rank with the first million seller in gospel history. In 1950 she became the first gospel singer to play Carnegie Hall. In Paris she was hailed as “The Angel of Peace,” and wherever she appeared audiences packed the venues to overflowing. In 1954 she began a radio series on the CBS network and signed with Columbia Records; that same year Down Beat magazine declared her “the greatest spiritual singer now alive.” She was featured in the Newport Jazz Festival’s gospel music showcase in 1957; in 1961 she sang at the Inaugural Ball for newly elected President John F. Kennedy. By the time she sang “How I Got Over” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” at the March on Washington in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, her stature as a spiritual leader was virtually on a par with Dr. King’s. She sang for royalty, she sang for Presidents, she sang for common people and treated them all alike--her mission was the message in her music, not celebrity. Coming of age in an era when gospel was producing the most powerful and persuasive singers in America, Mahalia brought gospel music out of the churches and beyond its limited concert circuit into the mainstream of this country’s cultural life, thanks not only to her popular records, butalso to her frequent appearances on national television, where she steadfastly refused to sing anything but gospel and insisted it be played with her long-time accompanist Mildred Falls’s piano as the most prominent instrument.

Mahalia Jackson, Rev. W.H. Brewster’s ‘Just Over the Hill,’ Apollo Records, 1950

Mahalia Jackson died in Chicago on January 27, 1972 of heart failure and complications from diabetes.

In her book Just Mahalia, Baby: The Mahalia Jackson Story, author Laurraine Goreau chronicled the inside story of Mahalia’s groundbreaking June 1, 1958 appearance on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show on NBC, a breakthrough for black artists in primetime TV history. In the following excerpt, Shore fights for Mahalia’s appearance and gets a valuable lesson from Mahalia about the difference between blues and gospel that perfectly illustrates the towering artist’s musical integrity. Having once declared gospel music “the staff of life,” Mahalia Jackson brooked no ambiguity in defining its essence.


dinahIn Hollywood, Dinah Shore had been begging. So had Bob Banner, her producer, who was from Texas. They couldn’t get an okay to schedule any black performers.

“All right, we’ll make it easy for you, with Mahalia Jackson, this great human being; this lady has the pipeline to God, you know/ she is perfection itself.”

“We both wanted Mahalia Jackson more than anybody,” says Dinah Shore. “I wanted her because I liked her, and because it would be a milestone for me to do a program with Mahalia--I thought it might just lay one little brick in the cornerstone of television. I thought it was terribly important at that point.” Finally, the okay. Grudging all the way, but okay.

Mahalia Jackson performs Thomas A. Dorsey’s ‘Precious Lord,’ 1961

Walking into the studio with her pianist, Mildred Falls, Mahalia had no qualms. They’d never met; she’d never worked with a woman star before, but she’d seen Dinah Shore on TV.

She was not really prepared for what occurred. Neither was Dinah. “It was an experience--it was a happening,” says the blonde star. Greeting, they looked so different--she slight, blonde, youthful; Mahalia brown, ageless, well over her 200 “singing weight.” But their smiles matched--and their vibrations. Those were right--oh, they were right. Now to put a show together.

It wasn’t easy. First, Mahalia vetoed the orchestrations. “We had brass in there, and Mahalia said, ‘No, no, no. I can’t sing with brass; that is not the spiritual quality.’ She was very particular about how we orchestrated the songs we did together, because brass was not part of the church. Drums could be, any rhythm could be, violins could be, but to her brass just wasn’t genuine and she didn’t allow it. And she was right.”

Mahalia Jackson sings ‘How I Got Over’ at the March on Washington, March 1963, following Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Next, Hollywood studio musicians met their first gospel fist, and it threw them. “That one hand of Mildred’s was the strongest thing in the whole world. My musicians had never heard anything like this. I had, from the time I was a child--if you slip in and listen to a Baptist revival meeting, then you’ve heard this piano wit the one strong hand, and we ribbed the people on our show: ‘Mildred’s got a left hand, that’s what your problem is.’ So Mildred plays with that, and the foot was stomping…and it was an entirely different beat.”

That brought on rockets and conflagration: a Mahalia Jackson eruption on the head of a Mildred unaccountably careless with the sudden notoriety. The burst was over as suddenly as a flash flood--Dinah, the whole set, standing by. “I respected her for it. What she demanded from the people around her was the kind of perfection she exacted from herself, and the dedication. She couldn’t tolerate ineptitude or carelessness, or somebody who wasn’t giving his full measure.”

Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole, ‘Steal Away,’ on Nat’s TV show, 1957. What a moment.

They got back to work. “I’ve gotta hear this,” Dinah said. “I’ve gotta do it be ear, or they’re going to have to teach me my part on piano.”

“Darling, you too?”

“It’s a kind of deliberate, negative snobbism, I suppose,” says Dinah Shore, thoughtfully, “but I was afraid that if I learned too much about music, I wouldn’t be free as I wanted to be--that’s what I felt at the time. I knew too many singers who’d come out of choruses who could read parts, and I envied them, but if you’re stuck to that piece of paper and you remember the relation of those notes, you’re not going to listen as carefully to the chord. Mahalia had this natural thing from childhood, just hearing a gospel song form the time she was yea big, letting her soul and mind lead her away from whatever she had done in her last performance. Both of us took great pride in never doing anything twice the same. Which drove arrangers up the walls.

“Pinning it down exactly, you might have technical perfection, but then there was the chance you might not reach the heights you would if you ad libbed a little. It drove the control room up the wall, too, but it was kind of exciting.”

“He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” was all Mahalia’s on the air--and she was theirs. Delighted, they watched as a pulsating exultation gripped her so that she shifted tempo, felt it differently than they’d rehearsed it, Mildred instantly sensing what she wanted and giving it to her, leaving the rhythm section--custodians of the tempo--to follow. “Mildred was stronger than all of them!” says Shore. “The drums had to come back down with her. And they loved it.”

Mahalia sings ‘Trouble Of the World’ in the Douglas Sirk-directed film Imitation of Life (1959), starring Lana Turner, John Gavin and Sandra Dee.

Cue cards moved Dinah into a discussion of the blues, which she’d sung from childhood--white blues. “I was talking to Mahalia about it, and I said, ‘Well, there’s blues in the gospel; you sing the blues in--“ ‘No, I don’t. I sing the gospel; the gospel of people standing in an open field, thinking of the Lord, praying to the Lord for something beautiful--the blues is a person standing alone in a deep pit crying for help.’ And I suddenly thought about it: the blues are exactly what they say they are, although both are based on the 12-bar phrase--underneath, most of them go in the same direction. She was absolutely right, the content and context of the lyrics…you can get just as much excitement in the blues but it’s blues of necessity. The only way it’s ever light is if there’s humor in it, whereas gospel is always happy and ‘up.’ The blues of necessity must be ‘down’ in lyric content. And I was amazed--I had never thought about it that way…and that was Mahalia’s philosophy of life; we got it that night. And that was a revelation.”

Mahalia Jackson and Dinah Shore, ‘Down By the Riverside,’ on Mahalia’s groundbreaking June 1, 1958 appearance on The Dinah Shore Chevy show on NBC,

The moved together for “Down By the Riverside,” and what had been electric was incandescent. They gloried in the song and they reveled in each other. They generated a voltage that reached through the tubes across the nation…and sent thousands to their telephones and pens. It seemed to NBC as if the world was thrilled. “They were as thrilled in New Orleans and Houston as they were in New York or Kansas City, or wherever it was. Dignity and integrity and a sense of honor that was incorruptible about herself and her work, they were all there with this great talent and the world saw it. Strangely enough, that first show was many, many years ago, and all the incredible shows we did in the years of that whole series, the one that people single out to talk about today is that one we did with Mahalia.”

Mahalia Jackson, ‘He Knows How Much We Can Bear,’ written by Roberta Martin

But was she wholly incorruptible? On the heels of the show, a telegram came from Las Vegas: Singing her own material, they’d pay her $25,000 a week. It was a startling, shocking sum. Five years earlier, Danny Thomas had made entertainment history at $10,000. Now, $25,000 to a black woman to sing the gospel in a club! She stared at the telegram. They telephone rang. Las Vegas. If Miss Jackson had objections to the whiskey being served while she sang, there would be none served, or orders taken, while she was on.

Mahalia Jackson, ‘Remember Me’

Not since The Hot Mikado had she been tempted but she was tempted now. Through a long night, she wrestled. Lord? Lord? And rose to say no. “The Devil don’t ever sleep, honey,” she’d say of that night. “He’ll keep prodding and pinching and twisting you--he figures to catch you one day, some way.”

Not this day, this way.

Excerpt from Just Mahalia, Baby: The Mahalia Jackson Story, by Laurraine, Goreau, available at www.amazon.com

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