Oct. 26 marks the birthday of the legendary gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972). One of the most revered gospel figures of the 20th Century, she was known as the “Queen of Gospel.”
Jackson began her singing career at the age of 4 at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church in New Orleans, the city of her birth. From Louisiana she moved to Chicago as a teenager with the intent of studying nursing. According to biography.com, she joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church, becoming a member of the Johnson Gospel Singers before she started working with Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music.
In addition to Dorsey, she worked with artists like Duke Ellington, performing in a wide range of venues from churches to Carnegie Hall to the Newport Jazz Festival and other sites in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to singing at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, she sang at the 1963 March on Washington at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Allegedly, Jackson encouraged Dr. King to “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” which prompted him to go into the speech which had not been part of the message that he had prepared.
Although she made some recordings in the 1930s, her recording of “Move on up a Little Higher,” which sold millions of copies, was a major hit that helped to catapult her music career. Time Magazine included the song in its list of the top 100 songs since its founding in 1923. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, with a dozen million-sellers.
Wikipedia notes that she was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as "the single most powerful black woman in the United States." The source also mentions Dr. King’s description of Jackson’s powerful contralto voice: "A voice like this one comes not once in a century, but once in a millennium.”
Click here to read an article about Jackson's participation in the 1963 March on Washington.