Ma­halia Jack­son, ‘Queen of Gospel’ to Chicago and the world

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO FLASHBACK - By Ron Gross­man rgross­[email protected]­

Ma­halia Jack­son was seated nearby when Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the lectern on Aug. 28, 1963, to ad­dress the 250,000 marchers who had come to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to mark the 100th anniversar­y of the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion. King de­tailed the bar­ri­ers that still de­nied African-Amer­i­cans equal rights, and then he hes­i­tated, as if search­ing for an im­age to leave with the crowd and myr­iad oth­ers watch­ing on tele­vi­sion.

Jack­son — the “Queen of Gospel,” as she was known — had per­formed ear­lier, just as she had at pre­vi­ous stops on King’s civil rights cru­sade.

“Tell them about the dream, Martin,” she called out. “Tell them about the dream!”

Set­ting aside his pre­pared text, King riffed on Jack­son’s sug­ges­tion — re­peat­ing, over and over, the now-fa­mous phrase “I have a dream …”

Jack­son may have heard King use it be­fore. Ei­ther way, dreams were the con­tin­u­ing mo­tif of her life. Some frus­trated, oth­ers de­ferred. One she could scarcely be­lieve, even when that dream came true.

The mag­ni­tude of her tal­ent was un­mis­tak­able when she made her pro­fes­sional de­but, in 1928, at Pil­grim Bap­tist Church in Chicago’s Bronzevill­e neigh­bor­hood.

“It was a voice qual­ity no one else had,” her men­tor Thomas Dorsey told the Tri­bune when Jack­son died in 1972. “Hard to put into words what it was — a sort of cry or whine, with a lot of pathos.”

She got $4 for that ini­tial gig and not much more for sub­se­quent singing ap­pear­ances. She worked days as a maid and laun­dress. Then on Oct. 4, 1950, she was booked into the ver­i­ta­ble mecca of op­er­atic per­form­ers.

“There I was, after all the years, on the stage of Carnegie Hall in New York,” Jack­son told the Tri­bune in 1955. “Think of it — me, a wash­woman stand­ing where such peo­ple as (En­rico) Caruso and Lily Pons stood. I’ve never got­ten over it.”

Jack­son’s child­hood dreams were more mod­est. Born in 1911, she was raised among a dozen as­sorted fam­ily mem­bers in a three-room house near a Mis­sis­sippi River levee in New Or­leans.

Poverty ruled out store­bought toys, so she fash­ioned dolls of wild grass and rags wrapped around twigs. They were her first au­di­ence. “I used to sit and sing to them,” Jack­son told a Tri­bune re­porter in 1955. “I put in the sad­ness I heard in the men’s voices as they worked on the rail­road tracks nearby, and the trains them­selves.”

Her am­bi­tion was to be­come a nurse, but she had to leave school after the eighth grade to work as a house­maid. “Down there, you see white folks go­ing on to school, but you don’t get to go,” she re­called.

At 16 she came to Chicago, where she lived with two aunts and dreamed of be­com­ing a beau­ti­cian. It took her a dozen years to put away enough money to go to beau­ti­cian school and then open Ma­halia’s Beauty Salon at 3252 S. In­di­ana Ave. in 1940.

Mean­while, she’d sung in churches around the coun­try, re­turn­ing after each en­gage­ment to her day job in Chicago. “I can still iron a man’s shirt in three min­utes, with not a wrin­kle in it,” Jack­son re­called in 1955. “You ask a good laun­dress about that — she’ll tell you that’s all right.”

Jack­son’s lean years ended in 1948, when her record­ing of “Move On Up a Lit­tle Higher” sold mil­lions of copies — even­tu­ally a re­ported 8 mil­lion. The song’s com­poser, a Mem­phis, Tenn., pas­tor, in­tended it to be part of one of the stately re­li­gious dra­mas he staged. Jack­son trans­formed it ac­cord­ing to the rock ’em, sock ’em ap­proach that was her mu­si­cal sig­na­ture.

Her men­tor Dorsey was a jazz pi­anist be­fore be­com­ing mu­si­cal di­rec­tor at Pil­grim Bap­tist Church. He’d played with Ma Rainey, the great blues singer. Jack­son was fa­mil­iar with that style, hav­ing been in­tro­duced to Bessie Smith’s records by a cousin in New Or­leans.

Those in­flu­ences came to­gether in the way Jack­son belted out a song’s lyrics, punc­tu­at­ing them with a beat she called the “bounce.” That meant “step­ping up the tempo of the mu­sic, and putting joy into the voice … sort of mak­ing a joy­ful noise unto the Lord, as David said,” Jack­son ex­plained to Roi Ot­t­ley, the Tri­bune’s Bronzevill­e cor­re­spon­dent in the 1950s.

The ef­fect was mes­mer­iz­ing, Ot­t­ley re­ported: “Peo­ple clap and tap their feet, many fall to their knees and weep, and oth­ers pace the aisles in tears. Even so­phis­ti­cated au­di­ences, re­act­ing to her power are lifted.”

Yet Clau­dia Cas­sidy, the Tri­bune’s famed arts critic, was dis­ap­pointed by Jack­son’s 1959 ap­pear­ance at Orches­tra Hall. In­tro­duc­ing her, the AfricanAme­r­i­can poet Langston Hughes ex­plained that Jack­son didn’t sing spir­i­tu­als but gospel songs. “This sad­dened me, as I would trade you a cou­ple of dozen gospel songs any day of the week for one ‘Swing Low, Sweet Char­iot,’” Cas­sidy noted in her re­view.

For her own part, Jack­son in­sisted that she wasn’t a blues singer: “Blues are the songs of de­spair, but gospel songs are the songs of hope.” To il­lus­trate the dif­fer­ence, she played her record­ing of “Gonna Walk All Over God’s Heaven” for a Tri­bune re­porter in 1955. “Lis­ten to that,” she said. “It’s about peo­ple who never had any­thing. They’re full of hope. Some­day, all the toil and sad­ness will be gone. They’ll have shoes, and they’ll walk in heaven.”

Louis Armstrong urged Jack­son to leaven her reper­toire with jazz and pop tunes, but she re­mained faith­ful to gospel. When they did a duet at the 1970 New­port Jazz Fes­ti­val, it was “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” the tra­di­tional funeral march in their mu­tual home­town, New Or­leans.

She read the Bi­ble be­fore go­ing on­stage and re­fused to ap­pear in night­clubs where al­co­hol was served.

Jack­son cus­tom­ar­ily closed her eyes while per­form­ing, ex­plain­ing it gave her fo­cus: “No one else is there for me — I’m singing to the Lord.”

And, of course, in front of in­creas­ingly large au­di­ences that made her a wealthy woman. She bought a spa­cious ranch home in the Chatham neigh­bor­hood. In 1965, Jack­son ex­plained to a Tri­bune re­porter why she fur­nished her home in the French Re­gency style. “Back home these white folks I worked for had fur­ni­ture and I used to clean it and I used to say to my­self, some­day, when I grow up, ‘I’m go­ing to have fur­ni­ture like that.’”

On a Euro­pean tour four years ear­lier, Jack­son got rave no­tices. The Daily Ex­press’ re­view of her per­for­mance at London’s Al­bert Hall ran un­der the head­line “Thou­sands There But Ma­halia Sang To Me.” The au­di­ence at Berlin’s mas­sive Sport­palast in­sisted on her tak­ing 10 cur­tain calls. In Am­s­ter­dam, the ap­plause was deaf­en­ing be­fore she’d sung a sin­gle note.

Her crowded sched­ule was com­pli­cated by Jack­son’s com­mit­ment to the civil rights move­ment , start­ing with a ben­e­fit to fund the 1955 Mont­gomery bus boy­cott. From then on, when­ever King called she was ready to join him. If he was feel­ing down, he’d phone and ask her to sing to him.

Her health was in­creas­ingly prob­lem­atic. Ex­haus­tion forced Jack­son to cut short a 1952 Euro­pean tour, and she had a heart at­tack in 1964.

Dur­ing a 1971 Euro­pean tour, Jack­son suf­fered se­vere chest pains, and a U.S. mil­i­tary air­craft flew her to Chicago.

After be­ing in and out of hos­pi­tals, she died on Jan. 27, 1972, in Lit­tle Com­pany of Mary Hos­pi­tal in sub­ur­ban Ever­green Park. The Tri­bune es­ti­mated 6,000 peo­ple at­tended a me­mo­rial ser­vice for Jack­son at McCormick Place, where Aretha Franklin was among sev­eral per­form­ers who sang. An­other ser­vice was held in New Or­leans, and she was en­tombed in Me­tairie, La.

The evening be­fore her ser­vice in Louisiana, Cyles­tine Fletcher, Jack­son’s sec­re­tary, told a Tri­bune re­porter that, in one of her fi­nal hos­pi­tal stays, Jack­son told her to write down a bi­b­li­cal ci­ta­tion, which she did on a scrap of an en­ve­lope.

“You go read those verses — they’re haunt­ing me still,” Fletcher said of Psalm 119, verses 17 and 18:

“Deal boun­ti­fully with thy ser­vant, that I may live and keep thy word. Open thou mine eyes, that I may be­hold won­drous things out of thy law.”


Ma­halia Jack­son en­joys a drive in Chicago, circa 1954. The New Or­leans na­tive moved to Chicago at age 16 and even­tu­ally bought a spa­cious ranch home in the Chatham neigh­bor­hood.


Jack­son per­forms the “Hal­lelu­jah” cho­rus from Han­del’s “Mes­siah” in 1955. She typ­i­cally sang with her eyes closed: “I’m singing to the Lord.”


Jack­son sings “We Shall Over­come” with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., third from left, and the Rev. Jesse Jack­son, fourth from left, in 1966.

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