October 16th 1911 – January 27th 1972General critical consensus holds Mahalia Jackson as the greatest gospel singer ever to live; a major crossover success whose popularity extended across racial divides, she was gospel's first superstar, and even decades after her death remains, for many listeners, a defining symbol of the music's transcendent power. Born in one of the poorest sections of New Orleans she made her debut in the children's choir of the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church at the age of four, and within a few years was a prominent member of the Mt. Moriah Baptist's junior choir. A major inspiration was the blues of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
Jackson relocated to Chicago in 1927, where she worked as a maid and laundress; within months of her arrival, she was singing leads with the choir at the Greater Salem Baptist Church. Her provocative performing style enraged many of the more conservative Northern preachers, but few could deny her fierce talent.
Jackson began her solo career accompanied by pianist Evelyn Gay, who herself later went on to major fame as one half of gospel's Gay Sisters. In 1937 she made her first recordings for Decca, becoming the first gospel artist signed to the label. She soon began performing live in cities as far away as Buffalo, New Orleans, and Birmingham, becoming famous in churches throughout the country for not only her inimitable voice but also her flirtatious stage presence and spiritual intensity.
Producer Art Freeman insisted Jackson record W. Herbert Brewster's "Move on Up a Little Higher"; released in early 1948, the single became the best-selling gospel record of all time, selling in such great quantities that stores could not even meet the demand. Virtually overnight, Jackson became a superstar; among White intellectuals and jazz critics, she acquired a major cult following based in large part on her eerie similarities to Bessie Smith. In 1952, her recording of "I Can Put My Trust in Jesus" even won a prize from the French Academy, resulting in a successful tour of Europe,
Jackson's success soon reached such dramatic proportions that in 1954 she began hosting her own weekly radio series on CBS, the first program of its kind to broadcast the pure, sanctified gospel style over national airwaves. In 1954 she signed to Columbia, scoring a Top 40 hit with the single "Rusty Old Halo," and two years later made her debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.
A triumphant appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival solidified Jackson's standing among critics. In 1959, she appeared in the film Imitation of Life, and two years later sang at John F. Kennedy's Presidential inauguration. During the '60s, Jackson was also a confidant and supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, and at his funeral sang his last request, "Precious Lord"; throughout the decade she was a force in the civil rights movement, but after 1968, with King and the brothers Kennedy all assassinated, she retired from the political front. At much the same time, Jackson went through a messy and very public divorce, prompting a series of heart attacks and the rapid loss of over a hundred pounds; in her last years, however, she recaptured much of her former glory, concluding her career with a farewell concert in Germany in 1971. She died January 27, 1972.