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Who is Mahalia Jackson?

By J. Beam
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Mahalia Jackson was an American gospel music singer and is widely regarded as the best gospel singer of all time. Some of her more popular recordings include “Silent Night,” “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” “There Will be Peace in the Valley,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” A devout Christian, Mahalia Jackson became very accomplished with numerous achievements to her credit over the span of her career.

Born in New Orleans in 1911, Mahalia Jackson grew up in Louisiana in a small home with her mother, her brother and many extended family members. Jackson loved singing in church and even at an early age her freely flowing gospel style was apparent. At the age of 16, she moved to Chicago and joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church choir. Mahalia Jackson performed as a soloist in churches and at funerals. Though her lively, energetic interpretations of songs were sometimes frowned upon by more formal churches – largely because of the apparent jazz and blues undertones in her vocal style - many smaller, forward-thinking churches had begun to take notice of Mahalia Jackson.

Jackson’s first recording deal came in 1937 under the label of Decca Records, but success eluded her until after touring gospel tents and churches with composer Thomas A. Dorsey. As Mahalia Jackson’s popularity grew, she was offered a second record contract and finally in 1954, under Columbia Records, Jackson became a widely recognized gospel singer. In 1958, Mahalia Jackson’s recording of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” went to number 69 on the Billboard Top 100, an unusual feat for a spiritual song.

Never crossing over into secular music, Mahalia Jackson sung gospel throughout her entire career. Succeeding in a music genre that was traditionally not mainstream in popular culture, Jackson traveled the variety show and public appearance circuit. She performed on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956 and sang at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball.

In addition to her popularity as a gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson was a prominent female presence during the Civil Rights Movement. She performed at the 1963 rally where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech. Mahalia Jackson died of heart failure on 27 January 1972. The same year, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

Even in death, Jackson was not forgotten. In 1997, Mahalia Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1998, the U.S. Postal Service honored Jackson with a postage stamp. Jackson is entombed at Providence Memorial Park where her headstone reads “The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer."

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