Mahalia Jackson, 1911-1972

  • Mahalia-Jackson-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & Feminism and MusicWoman Tags: African-American Women, NOLA Women, and Singer

  • HerStory

    A famous singer, known as the pioneer of gospel mainstream commercial success.

    Born in New Orleans. As a child Jackson used to sing hymns to her dolls and her family. Despite her aunt’s house-rules against secular music, she would secretly listen to blues singer Bessie Smith, who later inspired her unique interpretation of religious singing. She wanted to become a nurse, but left school to work. At 16 she moved to Chicago and worked as a laundress, hotel maid, and baby sitter. She performed in churches for donations and ten cents tickets and sang at funerals.
    Despite the moderate commercial success of her first album, she continued singing only gospel. A decade later she became the first one to sell over million gospel albums with her hit “Move Up a Little Higher”. With more than 30 albums later, she is credited in music history as the undisputed “queen of gospel”, making the genre popular outside of churches in the mainstream culture. In 1961 she became the first gospel singer to win a Grammy, and that same year she sang the anthem at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. Her popularity was expressed in full concerts in Europe, her own radio show, and TV appearances.
    She encountered many acts of racism, and became politically active, singing in rallies as “the soundtrack of the civil rights movement”. She performed two songs for a crowd of 250,000 at the famous 1963 March on Washington. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came up to give his speech, she called him on stage “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” – a comment that has inspired him to improvise and add the “I have a Dream” line in his famous speech.
    She had two public funeral services, attended by thousands, in New Orleans, and Chicago. She was divorced twice, and never had children.

    “When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong”

    “When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • Martin Luther King Jr. used to call her when he felt discouraged and asked her to sing over the phone for him.
    • In 1940, after 12 years of saving money, she went to a beautician school and opened “Mahalia’s Beauty Salon”.
    • When she bought her own house, she furnished it in the French Regency style, explaining that she promised herself to do so when she saw that style while cleaning white people’s houses.
    • When she had chest pains during a European tour, a US military aircraft flew her to Chicago.
    • She made sure to read the Bible before going onstage and refused to perform in clubs that served alcohol.
    • When she performed in India, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was in the audience.
    • The first female statue in NYC was to honor her.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * CDs of her music
    * Books about her
    * DVDs of her live shows


    * Two Grammy awards, and one lifetime Grammy

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Mahalia Jackson - Amazing Grace

    The Queen of Gospel breaking down Amazing Grace.

  • Mahalia Jackson Portrait. Photo credit - Van Vechten, Carl @ Library of Congress.