Mahalia Jackson was born in a three-room shack October 26, 1911, or was it 1912, in New Orleans on Water Street between the railroad tracks and the Mississippi Levee.
When Mahalia was five-years old, her mother died and she was raised by an aunt. She had one dress and went to school barefoot, finishing the eighth grade.
The center of Mahalia’s life was at the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church with two or three services on Sunday and a couple more during the week. Even when she was a small child, people began to notice that Mahalia had an unusual golden voice, a true gift from God. She not only sang with the choir, but did solos in her own church, and then, in other churches nearby.
When she was 16, an uncle took her to Chicago and now she was living at Aunt Hannah’s, 3250 South Prairie, in the heart of the southside. At the Greater Salem Baptist Church, she sang “Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, Gabriel”, and the pastor was so impressed he asked the girl to join the church choir as a soloist. Before long, she was singing at other churches, the big ones and the store fronts.
In 1947, she recorded her first record and it sold over a million copies.,
Mahalia sang at the National Baptist Convention and from then on it was engagements all over the country. Then, she sang at Carnegie Hall, New York and Royal Albert Hall in London, and in the great concert halls on the continent. There were engagements in Japan, India and Israel. She met royalty that attended her Gospel concerts.
Mahalia had lucrative offers from big night clubs, but insisted she was a Gospel singer and turned them down. The Flamingo in Los Vegas offered her $25,000 a week, but she refused. Her singing was for Jesus and not for the world. It was Mahalia who made Chicago the source and center for Gospel music. At press conferences when asked to explain Gospel music, Mahalia always proceeded to explain the Gospel to the journalists.
World famous, yet always humble, she said to her biographer (Laurraine Goreau, 611 pages) “Write the real book of me, baby; don’t make me no saint. I’m just a frail human being wrestling demons every day, trying to make my way with the help of the Lord.”
Mahalia Jackson went to glory on January 27, 1972, at the Little Company Hospital in Evergreen Park.
Mayor Daley insisted that the funeral be at the Arie Crown Theatre. Along with 6,000 others, I attended and with me was Alex Lackey our Music Director.