‘She told Martin Luther King: tell ’em about the dream!’ The eternal life of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson

Fifty years after her death, friends and fans including Al Sharpton assess the legacy of a singer who took gospel mainstream and became ‘as big as Beyoncé’

In 2018, following a bruising divorce, the British singer Sarah Brown was “broke, financially, emotionally and spiritually – I had nothing to live for”. At her lowest ebb, she turned to a voice that had given her crucial guidance and succour when she was a child: Mahalia Jackson, the pre-eminent gospel star of the 20th century.

“Pop music was banned in my home growing up,” Brown says. “But my father owned records by Jim Reeves, Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson. And Mahalia’s voice opened my spirit up. I grew up in a volatile home – my father beat my mum, he beat my older brother. I was seven years old, living in fear.” But in Jackson’s volcanic, resonant, impassioned voice, Brown found much-needed shelter and catharsis. “I was able to scream along with her, and release that fear. Mahalia helped release me.”

‘Mahalia helped release me’ … Sarah Brown
‘Mahalia helped release me’ … Sarah Brown. Photograph: Andrew Cotterill

Fifty years after Jackson’s death, Brown – whose debut album, released tomorrow, features her takes on Mahalia standards – is one of so many who continue to be inspired by her artistry, life story and activism. “She was as big as Beyoncé is today – the prime gospel artist of the 1950s and 1960s, when gospel was the dominant music,” says Al Sharpton, who toured with Jackson as a child preacher in the 1960s.

“Mahalia’s the archetype for what we think of as gospel singing – her music is the building blocks for the golden age of gospel,” adds musician and label founder Matthew E White. “She is to gospel what Louis Armstrong was to jazz: the beginning of this music proliferating throughout culture.”

Jackson’s mother died when she was five and she was raised by her devout Aunt Duke in New Orleans. She sang Protestant hymns with the choir at Plymouth Rock Baptist church – and while Duke forbade her from entering the nearby Pentecostal church, she couldn’t resist eavesdropping on their services from the street, seduced by their exuberant, chaotic and joyful noises unto the Lord. Jackson later absorbed the fevered passion of the Pentecostal services into her own singing, along with other verboten influences such as blues artists Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and the folk songs sung by workers at the docks. Her singing was so vociferous, so impassioned, she was, on more than one occasion, shooed out of the church.

“Her voice was magnificent, powerful, like thunder,” says Brown. “You could hear the rock’n’roll, spiritual blues singer within this very strongly faith-led person.” This delicious dichotomy went both ways: secular music profoundly influenced her singing, but the ecstasy of her belief in a higher power was intoxicating. “Often as outsiders appreciating gospel culture, we fail to recognise that this is a true, personal, spiritual relationship the singer is having with their God,” says White. “That’s what Mahalia is expressing in her performances. When I listen to her sing, I feel she’s not with us, the audience – she’s not addressing us, she’s addressing that relationship with God.”

The gospel-music recording industry barely existed when Jackson cut her first releases in 1937, the big labels assuming fans of gospel were too poor to afford records. Seemingly validating this scepticism, her earliest 78s for Decca sold badly. Pressured by the label to record blues songs instead, Jackson resisted – at the age of 14, she’d been visited by a vision of Christ walking across a verdant meadow, which she interpreted as “the Lord [telling] me to open my mouth in his name”, a mission she accepted without question.

Refusing to sing “indecent music”, she returned to performing in churches and at revivals, making ends meet by selling her mother-in-law’s homemade cosmetics door-to-door. But within a decade she’d signed to a new label, Apollo, and her 1947 single Move On Up a Little Higher caught the ear of Chicago DJ Studs Terkel, who played the record incessantly on his radio show, comparing Jackson’s ever-ascending vocal to that of legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. Within a month, Move On Up had shifted 50,000 copies in Chicago; it went on to sell more than 8m worldwide.

White says that at first, “that very southern, soulful style of singing wasn’t what the northern churches wanted – they considered it not the correct way to sing gospel”. But congregation after congregation was won over. Recalling his childhood days watching from the wings as she performed, Sharpton says that when Jackson sang, “her voice would build and build, and her audience would rise with her, to a point where they were overwhelmed”.

“She brought this sense of being a part of something bigger than herself,” says Greg Cartwright, Memphis garage-rock cornerstone and leader of the Compulsive Gamblers, the Oblivians and Reigning Sound. “There’s a remarkable amount of redemption in what she sings, and it goes to the core of your heart. When she sings, it’s like when your mother soothes you when you’re a child – you feel at peace, and want to let that warm wave just wash over you.”

‘I had to deconstruct the way I sang’ … Fana Hues
‘I had to deconstruct the way I sang’ … Fana Hues. Photograph: Randijah Simmons

Like Brown, Californian R&B maverick Fana Hues has intimate knowledge of Jackson’s gift, and the challenge she left in her wake. “When I started singing, my grandma said, ‘Oh, you sound like Mahalia!’” says Hues. “And I didn’t, not at all. But when I was 18, I had to perform her version of Precious Lord in a show in Vegas. It was such a huge song to tackle, a mountain to climb. R&B today has a lot of vocal acrobatics, but back then the purity came from her voice being a powerhouse. I had to deconstruct the way I sang – I had to get to the root of what it is to sing a song so that people will feel it.”

In the years that followed Move On Up, Jackson became gospel’s crossover star. Her journey was remarkable: a singer born in poverty – who was told by an operatic tenor who tutored her earlier in her career that her singing was “undignified” – now found herself enjoying encores and standing ovations in the world’s most celebrated venues. In 1950, she became the first gospel artist to play New York’s Carnegie Hall. Two years later, she undertook her first tour of Europe, receiving 21 curtain calls in Paris. Her 1958 performance at the Newport jazz festival yielded one of her finest recordings; the same year, she collaborated with Duke Ellington for his ambitious suite Black, Brown and Beige. “The whole essence of jazz is to be instinctual, but also intentional,” says Hues. “That was Mahalia, through and through. In the traditional sense, she was untrained. But there was nothing amateur about her performance – her voice was so intentional.”

Jackson’s appeal transcended religion, race, class and genre. But, says Sharpton, “she never lost her authenticity. She wasn’t shaped and moulded by her producers. She was the lady you saw at church every Sunday; she just sang better. Everyone knew Mahalia had gone through some marriage problems” – her first husband, Ike Hockenhull, had a gambling problem and squandered her money; her second husband, Sigmond Galloway, was abusive, cheated on her, and neglected her as her health declined in the 1960s – “so people felt she was singing from her own pain. After my parents broke up, my mother played Mahalia’s recording of Precious Lord every day. Mahalia got us through bad times. She did that for all of Black America.”

Mahalia Jackson with Dr Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s
Mahalia Jackson with Dr Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Success didn’t spoil Jackson, who once declared: “Money just draws flies.” And she was keenly aware of the injustices her people suffered in Jim Crow America. “Mahalia came from the south, she knew segregation,” says Sharpton. She lent her artistry to the burgeoning civil-rights movement, singing in honour of Rosa Parks, raising bail money for jailed activists and working closely with Martin Luther King Jr. “A lot of gospel singers and church leaders did not believe in getting politically involved, but Dr King’s was a church-based organisation, so she could participate without leaving the church,” Sharpton continues. “She was a foundation of the civil-rights movement. Gospel was its soundtrack. They sang gospel songs when they marched, when they went to jail, when they were brutalised.”

Jackson’s greatest contribution to the movement came with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At the Lincoln Memorial, before more than 250,000 marchers, she sang I’ve Been Buked, evoking the suffering the civil-rights activists were seeking to overturn, before manifesting the movement’s hope and defiance with How I Got Over. King was the final speaker that night, as Sharpton explains. “Martin’s chief of staff told me Martin was giving this speech with all these polysyllabic words, and, as a performer, Mahalia could tell he wasn’t getting the response he wanted. So she called to him from the side of the stage, ‘Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!’”

At Jackson’s urging, King delivered the greatest speech of his career. “Listen back to it,” urges Hues. “His intonation was like he was singing.” Jackson had once patterned her singing on “the way the preacher would preach in a cry, in a moan”; now the nation’s most famous preacher was following her lead.

Jackson never really recovered from King’s assassination in 1968. “She’d talk about Dr King in the dressing room,” remembers Sharpton. “She’d say, ‘Boy Preacher, I miss Martin, I wish he was around to see all this.’ It was personal for her.” As King had requested, she sang his favourite hymn, Precious Lord, at his funeral. The following year, at the Harlem cultural festival, she sang the hymn again, a startling, intense performance, handing the microphone to a 30-year-old Mavis Staples to finish the song, as if she were passing a baton. “It’s like a summit meeting, a ‘kumbaya’ moment,” says Questlove, who used footage of the performance for his acclaimed 2021 documentary Summer of Soul. Jackson continued to perform, touring Africa, the Caribbean and Japan, but her health was failing. She died in January 1972 at the age of 60, following surgery to clear a bowel obstruction. Aretha Franklin – whom Jackson had helped raise, and who had just recorded her acclaimed gospel concert album Amazing Grace – sang Precious Lord at her funeral.

Half a century on, Jackson’s legacy remains indelible. For Sharpton, she “brought gospel mainstream, took it out of the chitlin circuit and brought it downtown. She made the world understand gospel music without watering it down. She made them take us on our own terms.” For Cartwright, Jackson’s music was “a bridge. And after two years of this pandemic, and with nationalism spreading everywhere, her messages of unity, love and forgiveness are exactly what the world needs right now.”

For Brown, meanwhile, mimicking Jackson allowed her to find her own voice. As a young woman she joined the Inspirational Choir of the Pentecostal First Born Church of the Living God (who backed Madness on their 1983 hit Wings of a Dove), and later became a session singer, working with Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones, and touring with Roxy Music and Simple Minds. Following her divorce, however, Brown felt estranged from her gift. “I didn’t feel I could sing love songs any more,” she says. “I couldn’t sing about chasing a man or being chased any more – I no longer believed in romantic love, at least not as Hollywood taught it.”

Rudderless, Brown once again used Jackson as her compass. She set to work on a project she had been dreaming of for two decades, reinterpreting traditional spirituals that had become synonymous with Jackson. And just as Jackson located her own truths within timeless hymns, Brown’s album Sarah Brown Sings Mahalia Jackson finds her singing her own story through the religious standards. “I needed to sing about how I’d been abused, how I’d seen my father abuse my mother,” she says, “so I sang Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. And I sang Didn’t It Rain, a song about hope and faith, because I had to believe one day I would sing with happiness. And I will. Returning to Mahalia was a cradle to my sorrow.”

Jackson was, and remains, a salvation, Brown says, someone who “left us a legacy of authenticity. She was going to sing, whether she was signed to a record company or not. She wouldn’t change her voice, she wouldn’t change her material. She stood in her greatness. And that’s a lesson we could all learn from.”

• Sarah Brown Sings Mahalia Jackson is released on 20 May on Live Records.


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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