Gospel Queen On The King's Highway: The Power And The Glory Of Mahalia Jackson A contemporary of Rosetta Tharpe, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson had one of the great big, gorgeous voices of the 20th century, the echoes of which can still be heard in popular music today.
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Gospel Queen On The King's Highway

The power and the glory of Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson sings at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957. Mary Lou Williams heard her there and said she felt "cold chills run up and down my spine." Bob Parent/Getty Images hide caption

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Bob Parent/Getty Images

Mahalia Jackson sings at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957. Mary Lou Williams heard her there and said she felt "cold chills run up and down my spine."

Bob Parent/Getty Images

Pope John XXIII said such nice things to her. The National Baptist Convention was no less captivated, as were the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of black and white bishops and preachers and worshippers worldwide. The King and Queen of Denmark wanted more. So did the Empress of Japan, four U.S. presidents, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, broadcaster Studs Terkel, the City of New Orleans, Ed Sullivan and James Baldwin, among others. But for musicians, the best compliments come from other musicians and no one could praise Mahalia Jackson the way that the jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Williams heard Jackson sing there and said, "That goddamn woman makes cold chills run up and down my spine."

Jackson had one of the great big, gorgeous voices of the 20th century — maybe the biggest — inducing cold chills and hot springs of unexpected feeling. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she followed an interior compass that kept her locked exclusively onto gospel music. By her calculus, Jackson didn't budge much from her original sound. She always sang like a bigger-than-life, supremely talented zealot. Her voice and timing and intensity not only rattled black listeners like Williams, but — for the first time — inspired mainstream white listeners to appreciate religious and secular music with a black gospel feel.

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"She precedes Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin," says music historian Mark Burford, who specializes in 20th Century African-American music at Reed College. His 2019 book, Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field, re-examines years of scholarship and common assumptions about Jackson, who he believes had a lot to do with why "gospelized voices have become the lingua franca of popular culture."

Gospel greats Cooke and Franklin expanded their appeal across the color divide when they transitioned to pop music in 1957 and 1960 respectively — without ever fully closing the door on the church. But Jackson introduced herself to white mainstream listeners singing the same songs she would have sung at many a black religious service. Exposing new audiences — virtually anyone with a radio or a television set — to what thousands of Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal and Sanctified congregations heard at church every week made Jackson "a cutting edge model for gospel in the early 1950s," Burford says. Of course, white Pentecostal worshippers at the time were well acquainted with ecstatic revival singing, he adds. But those styles weren't the same as Jackson's operatic runs, moans, note-bending and interpolations.

A Singing Blow Torch

Listen to her Apollo Records release "Tired." The truly weary tend not to holler about it, but Jackson lets out the word "tired" like a dragon blowing fire, sometimes hitting the one-syllable word on the head with a single, rock-solid note and sometimes adding more syllables and bending the note up, up, up. Other syllables she throws away almost completely — like the "ing" in "resting," or even the word "trod." With Jackson, diction almost always takes a back seat to volume and emotional emphasis. She seems to be saying that if a woman as strong as she can wear out, then God's work must be a job from which it's impossible to clock out. On the capitalized words below, imagine standing next to a blow torch.

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Lord, I'm TIRED, Lord
SO little rest(ing)
TIIIIRED! [three syllables over three rising notes]
SO little resting
TIIIIIRED!
So little rest(ing)
Can't stop no-OW, Satan (trod)

You know, I'm so TIRED, Lord
SO little rest(ing)
TIRED
So little rest(ing)
TIIIIRED!
So little rest(ing)
Can't stop now, Satan (trod)

Join my hand with JEEZ-sus
NOT just for a (day)
But it's ALLLLLLL DAY LONG, THROOOOUGH the night
ALL UP the King's highway

When my SOUL get heavy
And I DON'T feel QUITE so (gay)
You know I DON'T GIVE UP
I HOLD on fast
KNEEL RIGHT DOWN and I (pray)

Sounds like a classic blues, right? Most every music lover knows that Jackson adored blues star Bessie Smith. In New Orleans, Smith on the radio was good company when, as a child, Jackson was scrubbing and mending and minding other people's babies. Her voice also carried a discombobulating wallop. "She just upset you," recalled the jazz guitarist Danny Barker, who was born in New Orleans in 1909 and saw Smith perform live. But blues songs lacked the spiritual nutrition that a young Mahalia apparently felt she needed in abundance. Biographer Laurraine Goreau writes that, early on, Jackson decided to confine her stomping and rocking to church — clapping her hands on the two and four beats the way people from New Orleans do.

Toggling Back and Forth

In the late 1920s, or early 1930s, or whenever Jackson actually moved to Chicago as a young woman — even some experts about her life aren't quite sure when she got there – some black ministers there rejected her style of singing, saying she was a rowdy jazz artist masquerading in choir robes. She also danced a little while she sang. Back then, even the most charismatic secular hit makers rarely exerted themselves on stage. Flat-footed crooners, like Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée, leaned quietly into the microphone, Burford says. "That was the preferred approach." But other black ministers in Chicago loved Jackson because she brought in the crowd. So "she would really toggle back and forth in her singing styles," he says. "In (more restrained) Methodist churches she'd sing one way and in storefronts she'd sing another way."

For the next 30 years, Jackson "toggled" this way and that, often injecting performances with a gamut of emotion ranging from gentle to nuclear. No jazz singer was more nimble in her ability to accommodate a crowd. Eventually, Jackson's musical choices paid off. She made records and radio shows, ("Remember, we're not in church — we're on CBS," she once told a lively studio audience), and in 1952, for the first time ever, she appeared on national television — on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town.

Here's a link to her performance of "These Are They" on an early Sullivan show. She starts singing at 0:36. It's one of the first times the nation had a chance to see the cheerful, solidly-built, round-faced Jackson. She looks queenly in her elaborate choir robe, with her curls piled up and glistening like a crown. But if this is an example of Jackson "toggling" toward restraint on national TV to accommodate white, uninitiated audiences, then what in the world was she doing off camera, in front of black, thoroughly initiated and more excitable audiences?

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Frenemies in Christ

Throughout her career, Jackson faced competition for the spotlight from a crowd of deeply talented black gospel singers. In the mid-1940s, the guitar-playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the most popular and she rocked hard on "Didn't It Rain" and other hits, with more exciting arrangements. The glamorous Ward Singers reportedly bested Jackson in a 1950s gospel singing contest, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Courier, that attracted 200,000 black voters. Dorothy Love Coates had what gospel scholars called a "dirty voice," which made her hit song "That's Enough," (with the Original Gospel Harmonettes) particularly memorable. Ernestine Washington and a variety of male gospel quartets and quintets were awfully popular, as well. In addition, there were any number of immensely talented church singers nationwide who never had a chance to record. But while Jackson's gospel frenemies were tough and often commercially successful competitors, none could sustain the interest of a mainstream white audience like she could.

In 1954, Jackson signed with Columbia Records and became the first black gospel singer on a major label. That's when Billboard realized her crossover appeal. A hit gospel record back then reportedly sold upwards of 20,000 copies. Jackson's records sold in the millions on Apollo and even more on Columbia. She appeared on the star-filled television show Arthur Godfrey and His Friends and other white hosts clamored to have her, as well.

Jackson, became a tastemaker, clearing a place for gospel music — and, specifically, a black gospel sound --- in the wider culture. There was no going back. As white ears were opening up, the crooning styles of the '20s, ' 30s and '40s faded to black.

Watch Dinah Shore dig deep to match Jackson's power in 1958, when they sang a rousing "Down By the Riverside." It was Shore's television show, but rarely must the star work so hard.

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Style vs. Passion

Journalist Richard Kleiner described Jackson's effect on white singers as early as 1954 for the New York World Telegram and Sun. "Mahalia Jackson, who's been a favorite in some circles for years, is widening her circle," he writes. "Her highly individualized style — she uses her voice like a musical instrument — has been copied of late by many pop singers. Some critics claim the entire Johnnie Ray-Frankie Laine-Kay Starr-Sunny Gale school of singing is a direct result of Mahalia's vocal inventions. The similarity is startling."

Try listening to those artists today and, chances are, Jackson will not come to mind. But that may be because commanding voices are now so ubiquitous in mainstream culture. Burford sees the connection between Jackson and the big-voiced white singers of her day, as real, but indirect. "The influence is less in terms of sound than approach," he says. "In the 1950s, you get more of an extroverted performance, [white] singers singing with a full voice. There was more of an emotional commitment inspired by black gospel music and Mahalia Jackson."

And yet, Jackson's delivery diverges dramatically from that of most white pop singers, past and present. That's because Jackson's style was not a style, per se. She couldn't, wouldn't and/or didn't sing any other way. Kay Starr and the others did. What's more, Jackson's impassioned delivery while singing connected seamlessly to her impassioned behavior while not singing. When she felt the spirit, her hot and sweaty conviction could knock a man down — and did. She once jumped up during a prayer in church, toppled the preacher and stomped her feet so hard that she broke off the heels on both of her shoes. It took a team of men to carry her away. That kind of emotional intensity — the kind that could break a shoe, or cause her to knock the wig off her head, or to bite down and lose a tooth in the middle of a song — runs through Jackson's entire repertoire. Whether singing a capella, with her usual piano and organ accompaniment, or with an orchestra, Jackson gave herself over to the spiritual message of her music with the conviction of John Henry driving steel. It's likely what gave Williams those cold chills at Newport.

Disney, No — Duke, Yes

In today's vernacular, Jackson's religious conviction was her "brand." She protected it — never performing at Disneyland like the Ward Singers or the Apollo Theater or at the Village Vanguard, where Tharpe reportedly opened for Thelonious Monk. She didn't want to be associated with places that sold alcohol, or be an instrument of the Lord playing second fiddle to Mickey Mouse. Some of her choices seemed contradictory at the time, but Jackson cleaved toward the clean and — to her mind — classy. Yes to Carnegie Hall. Yes to recording sacred music with Duke Ellington. Yes to national television and radio, which had strict rules of censorship. Yes to Hollywood. No to Broadway.

"Tharpe and the Ward Singers were actively strategizing about how to reach out [across the racial and secular divide] in a way that I don't think Jackson did," Burford says. "Jackson also got dinged for compromising because she was singing with Dinah Shore and on The Ed Sullivan Show. People aren't stupid. They're saying, 'You say you're gospel, but you're on stage with Duke Ellington.' But that wasn't a marketing strategy. It was more [like her] taking advantage of opportunities that were presented to her —to which she could have said, 'No.'"

At the height of their careers, Tharpe, Clara Ward and Jackson each had sizable incomes, beautiful cars, furs and the adulation of audiences nationwide. But Burford emphasizes Jackson's dignity on stage, relative to the others. "There was a sense of reverence," he says. "That's why she did recitals."

Take a look at the following video of her singing "How I Got Over" to a black congregation late in her career. It's the same song she sang in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington. Jackson's singular musicality is undeniable on the church video, because she's conveying much more than the lyrics. She makes "How I Got Over" a song about the challenges of civil rights, Jim Crow, Reconstruction and slavery, about the black experience all the way back to the Middle Passage — and what triumph really means. The contents of the entire National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C. — which neither she nor most of the members of that congregation lived to see, are in her rendition of this song. But non-black listeners also might hear something pertaining to their own historic trials and experiences in her performance. That's how wide a story Jackson tells. The film is in black and white and sputters sometimes, but be sure to watch all the way through and note the faces of the people in the congregation.

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The Complete Artist

Jackson reportedly loved the electric guitar and didn't mind rock and roll. After all, Elvis Presley had sent for her in California, saying, "Mahalia, you're just like my mama." But whatever impact she had on rock music, to her mind, she didn't need it. "Gospel singing is bigger than entertainment," Jackson told writer Nat Hentoff. "Gospel singing doesn't need artificial, unnecessary, phony sounds," she said. "Man has to have something to look up to."

It's hard to argue with her. In 2004, when Jackson State University in Mississippi mounted "Without Sanctuary," an exhibit of lynching photography in the U.S., the first voice visitors heard upon entering the space was Jackson's, singing, Soon we'll be done, Trouble of the world, Trouble of the world, Trouble of the world, Soon we'll be done, Trouble of the world, Going home to live with God ... She spoke for black people everywhere — and she sounded just right.

Jackson's longevity in public consciousness also relates to her ability to be tender and intimate, squeezing her faith into the tiniest spaces of a needy soul. In 2011, the former New Orleans columnist Jarvis DeBerry — now with the Cleveland Plain Dealer — wrote about his mother-in-law Ann Harris when describing Jackson's influence. "Mahalia Jackson was my mother-in-law's companion as she endured painful breast cancer treatments. When God heard her prayers, he heard Mahalia in the background, too," he writes. "If I really feel like I want to go back and get that closeness (to God) I listen to her," Harris told DeBerry. "If I'm feeling kind of down, she'll lift me up."

And yet, Jackson was kidding herself if she thought that she was only singing gospel. For Columbia, she also recorded any number of more salable songs on the margins of secular music. She sang a lovely "Danny Boy." She recorded "You'll Never Walk Alone," "Summertime," and Christmas carols, as well as inspirational chestnuts like "Sunrise, Sunset" and Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now Is Love." The essential Mahalia Jackson is, well, essential — and makes people want to know the God she sings about. "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," "I Can Put My Trust in Jesus," "His Eye is On the Sparrow," "I Will Move On Up a Little Bit Higher," "It Don't Cost Very Much." But Burford also encourages music lovers to dig into her lesser-known songs to better understand Jackson as a complete artist.

From One Generation to the Next ... and the Next

When Jackson died in January of 1972 at the age of 60, she left behind a small army of direct musical disciples, including jazz and gospel singer Della Reese, Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples, who were youngsters when she mentored them. They, in turn, influenced countless religious and secular performers, irrespective of race or genre of popular music. Jackson also made an impression on her friend — and old newspaper boy in Chicago — the Rev. James Cleveland, whose Southern California Community Choir supported Franklin on her gospel album Amazing Grace. The live recordings captured on that release — the best-selling gospel album of all time — also took place in January of 1972. Mahalia's fire apparently had passed from one generation to the next.

Nowadays, black gospel music has expanded into a much wider sphere of styles — from traditional hymn singing to a kind of God-and-Gangsta rap. But the gospelization of American popular music is nearly complete. "Gospel techniques and practices have infiltrated the circulatory system of popular music," Burford says. "You can't attribute directly, but Mahalia was a watershed moment in that transformation in terms of what it meant for popular singing and what has come afterwards through soul music, through blue-eyed soul and R&B since then."

Anyone left unconvinced should turn on the television and watch a singing talent show. Or watch any recent Super Bowl and listen to whoever sings the national anthem. Whitney Houston's 1991 performance has a black gospel feel that nearly every subsequent singer has tried to match. It's no accident that Whitney's mother, Cissy Houston — whom she credited with teaching her how to sing — led a pop-gospel group that sang back up for headliners including, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Linda Ronstadt and Mahalia Jackson.

There are no discrete videos of Jackson singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," although she did on various occasions. So why not listen to her sing the Jackie DeShannon pop hit "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" with Mike Douglas and Bobby Darrin?

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This episode of Douglas' show aired July 31,1970 and it's a weird trip. Douglas, a former big-band singer, has a sweetly swinging, though reticent tone. Darrin, sporting a mustache and open collar, is balding and lethargic. The men gamely defer to Jackson, but — truth be told — they also look a little afraid of her. Jackson — wearing a pastel pink Sunday dress — is standing under a remarkably dense, Clara Ward-style wig, the size of a wedding cake. As the band heats up, she tosses in her dental plate and drives the song:

And the world will be a better place
This WHOLE WORLD will be a better place
For you (For you) and me (And me)
You just wait (Just wait) and SEEEEEE!

What's remarkable is that — after all these years — Jackson is the only one who sounds current. Singing with real gusto, she rocks and syncopates, hums and interpolates, shouts and dances. The wig comes undone and so does everyone on — and off — camera. Really. Just wait (just wait) and see.


Gwen Thompkins is the executive producer and host of public radio's Music Inside Out, which airs on member station WWNO in New Orleans.