Moving to Chicago from New Orleans when she was 16, she joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church Choir, and it was from that platform that her reputation spread. By then Mahalia’s unique vocal style was already fully formed, combining the full-throated tones and propulsive rhythms of the sanctified church and the deep expressions of the blues with the note-bending phrasing of her Baptist upbringing. Her provocative performing style- influenced by the sanctified Southern style of keeping time with the body and distinguished by jerks and steps for physical emphasis – enraged many of the more conservative northern preachers, but few could deny her fierce talent. In Chicago she was influenced by the renowned gospel music community in the region and legendary music artist Thomas A. Dorsey (GMA Hall of Fame inductee 1982), who mentored her for years which further expanded her popularity. She became famous in churches throughout the country for not only her inimitable voice, but also the intensity of her stage presence.
Her first big, million-selling hit was Move on Up A Little Higher in 1947. Eight of her records sold more than a million each including I Believe and He’s Got the Whole World In His Hand. Even though she possessed one of the greatest potential blues voices ever, she never sang anything but religious songs, even turning down extravagant fees to perform in night clubs. Later in her career as her popularity was firmly established, she firmly rejected attempts that were made by the entertainment industry to move her away from strictly religious music.
Her accolades were many including becoming the first recipient ever of a Grammy Award dedicated to gospel/religious music. It was the Grammy’s fourth year in 1961 when she won Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording for, Every Time I Feel the Spirit (Columbia Records).
Mahalia sang her identity hit Precious Lord at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and her protégé Aretha Franklin sang the same stirring Dorsey-written song at Mahalia’s funeral in 1972 when she passed away at the all-too-young age of just 61. Mahalia’s performance at the August, 1963 MLK March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered the now famous “I Have A Dream” speech, was filmed and will forever remain a historic, iconic cultural moment captured in time.
Mahalia toured and was revered throughout the world – filling Carnegie Hall and having best-selling records internationally. She often appeared on television in the 1950s and 1960s including the Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. Mahalia sang at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
Gospel music owes a deep debt of gratitude to Mahalia Jackson. Her spirit, music and accomplishments will live in the hearts of millions forever.
Additional notes of interest:
Mahalia Jackson was the first gospel artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
See additional GMA Hall of Fame entry for: Thomas A Dorsey.
Content from: All Music Guide/Jason Ankeny (4th Edition 2001), Gospel Music Encyclopedia (1979) adapted/edited/additional writing by GMA Hall Of Fame staff member Jon Robberson Sr. (March 2021)