Monday, February 14, 2011


No one could make a joyful noise to the Lord like Ms. Jackson.

Most people can recall the names of great jazz and blues singers, but gospel music, because it has less commercial appeal, has fewer widely-known "stars." The name most closely associated with gospel in the minds of many is that of Mahalia Jackson, the undisputed "Queen of Gospel."

My father was a fan from years and years ago, when Ms. Jackson had a Sunday-evening television show in Chicago. This was around 1954. He told me that if he went out with friends on a Sunday night, he would tell them that he had to be near a television between 7-8 p.m. so he wouldn't miss Mahalia Jackson.

Ms. Jackson was born in New Orleans in 1911 and moved to Chicago at the age of sixteen, where she joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side and eventually began touring with a gospel quintet. She had an outstandingly beautiful contralto voice. She made her first recordings as a soloist in the mid-1930s for Decca and Apollo records, and eventually signed with Columbia records.

There is an interesting piece of information about one of the South Side Chicago churches where Ms. Jackson sang--the Pilgrim Baptist Church--which flourished under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Dorsey, best known for his hymn "Precious Lord."

She could have had enormous success--and greater wealth--singing blues and jazz. These opportunities were offered to her, but she never wanted to sing any type of music other than gospel. (My father also emphasized this point during our discussion about her; he was well aware that she could have been a great blues singer, but that she never wanted to depart from the singing of gospel music.)

Ms. Jackson explained her deep commitment to gospel music this way: "When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what's wrong. But when you are through with the blues, you've got nothing to rest on." (Source:

Both her own music and that of Dr. Dorsey were, not surprisingly, significantly influenced by the vocal artistry of ragtime, jazz, and blues artists such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. (Dr. Dorsey was himself originally a blues musician.)

Throughout the 1950s, Ms. Jackson appeared regularly on radio and television, and in concert halls around the world. Her European concert appearances were packed. She sang at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival at an all-gospel program she herself requested. In 1954, she began hosting her own Sunday night radio show for CBS.

She performed on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, from which she introduced gospel music into America's mainstream.

Gospel concerts are still alive and well, as my parents discovered last night during their attendance in Miami Beach last night of a concert featuring Kurt Carr accompanied by the Miami Mass Choir and the Voices of Christian Fellowship Choir. A joyful noise indeed. They report that it was splendid.

Now everyone do yourselves a favor and take a break when you can to listen to and watch this historic video of Ms. Jackson:

According to the note attached to this video, Ms. Jackson sang this just prior to the March on Washington before Dr. King's "I Have a Dream Speech."

Here is a German-produced video of Ms. Jackson singing at the rally:

Here is Ms. Jackson singing "Didn't It Rain," accompanied by a choir.

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