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Saturday, March 2

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A few years ago a friend gave me a mix tape -- yes, a cassette tape -- containing songs from his vast and varied music collection. Not only was I introduced to several great bands, the hallmark of a good mix tape, but I was also introduced to the powerful and expressive voice of Mahalia Jackson.

Squeezed between the melancholy sounds of Bedhead and Low, the energy and passion of Jackson's song, "You Must Be Born Again," provided a startling contrast. When I began searching in earnest for more information about her, I was thrilled to learn she rose to fame right here in Chicago.

Mahalia Jackson is hailed as the "Queen of Gospel Song" and the world's greatest gospel singer. She was born in New Orleans on October 26, 1911, the daughter of a Baptist preacher. She made her singing debut at the tender age of four as a member of the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church children's choir. Within a few years she was becoming skilled in traditional hymn styles as a member of the Mount Moriah Baptist Church choir. In addition, although secular music was forbidden at home, Jackson could not help being influenced as a child by the vibrant musical scene of New Orleans.

In 1927, at age 16, Jackson moved to Chicago. She supported herself working as a maid and laundress, but she also joined the choir at the Greater Salem Baptist Church at 215 W. 71st Street, where she quickly gained notoriety as a lead singer. Soon she was singing with the Johnson Brothers, recognized as one of the first professional gospel groups.

The Johnson Brothers broke-up in the mid-1930s, allowing Jackson to launch her solo career. She began a long-term collaboration with composer Thomas A. Dorsey, the "Father of Gospel Music" and a Chicago native. In 1937, Jackson became the first gospel to sign with the legendary Decca label, releasing the traditional song, "God's Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares," as her first single.

Yet even as Mahalia Jackson began to attract national attention, she continued to support herself through various business ventures. She attended beauty school at the Scott Institute of Beauty Culture on Chicago's South Side and soon opened her own beauty salon, which she kept for many years. Later she also ran a flower shop.

Then, in 1948, Jackson suddenly achieved the kind of success usually reserved for pop artists when her recording of "Move On Up a Little Higher" became the first gospel record to sell over a million copies. She was officially a star.

In the early 1950s Jackson became a regular guest on Studs Terkel's local television program. By 1954, she had her own short-lived television series and was hosting her own weekly radio show. In the 1960s she also became closely involved in the civil rights movement, strongly supporting the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. She sang at both the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961 and at the 1963 March on Washington. Just five years later, she famously sang one of her signature songs, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," at King's funeral.

Mahalia Jackson earned a crossover success never seen before or since in gospel music. Her powerful voice bridged racial, cultural and even national boundaries, achieving stardom not only in America, but also around the world. And she influenced many later artists such as Aretha Franklin. She died at age 60 on January 27, 1972.

Further Reading

Goreau, Laurraine. Just Mahalia, Baby. Gretna, La: Pelican, 1975.

Jackson, Mahalia with Evan McLeod Wylie. Movin' On Up. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1966.

Low, W. Augustus and Virgil A. Clift, eds. Encyclopedia of Black America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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