Mahalia Jackson Begins Her Recording Career

Mahalia Jackson launched a influential recording career that included a contract with Columbia Records and popularity that transcended racial lines. She was one of several important African American performers to bring gospel music into the mainstream of the U.S. recording industry.

Summary of Event

On October 3, 1946, Mahalia Jackson made her first gospel recordings for the New York label Apollo Apollo Records
Record labels;Apollo . Her first singles for the label did not sell well, but in 1947 she recorded a song that went on to sell a million copies. “Move on Up a Little Higher,” “Move on Up a Little Higher” (Brewster)[Move on Up a Little Higher] recorded September 12, 1947, covered both sides of the record. It had been written by the Reverend W. Herbert Brewster Brewster, W. Herbert , a well-known Memphis preacher and songwriter. The song put Jackson on the path to national prominence. “I Want to Rest” (Morris)[I Want to Rest]
“(I’m Going to) Wait Until My Change Comes” (Dorsey)[Im Going to Wait Until My Change Comes]
“I’m Going to Tell God” (McKinney)[Im Going to Tell God]
Gospel music
[kw]Mahalia Jackson Begins Her Recording Career (Oct. 3, 1946)
[kw]Jackson Begins Her Recording Career, Mahalia (Oct. 3, 1946)
[kw]Recording Career, Mahalia Jackson Begins Her (Oct. 3, 1946)
[kw]Career, Mahalia Jackson Begins Her Recording (Oct. 3, 1946)
“I Want to Rest” (Morris)[I Want to Rest]
“(I’m Going to) Wait Until My Change Comes” (Dorsey)[Im Going to Wait Until My Change Comes]
“I’m Going to Tell God” (McKinney)[Im Going to Tell God]
Gospel music
[g]North America;Oct. 3, 1946: Mahalia Jackson Begins Her Recording Career[01830]
[g]United States;Oct. 3, 1946: Mahalia Jackson Begins Her Recording Career[01830]
[c]Music;Oct. 3, 1946: Mahalia Jackson Begins Her Recording Career[01830]
Jackson, Mahalia
Dorsey, Thomas A.
King, Martin Luther, Jr.
[p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;and Mahalia Jackson[Jackson]
Terkel, Studs
Hammond, John

Mahalia Jackson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1962.

(Library of Congress)

Other Apollo recordings in the next eight years sold well, and Jackson became in demand nationwide as a leading exponent of the newer gospel songs. She became the official soloist of the National Baptist Convention National Baptist Convention , an African American church, and was a popular figure on Studs Terkel’s radio program in Chicago, where she lived. Terkel had an ear for folk, blues, and gospel music and found Jackson to be one of the finest singers and interpreters, with her rich and strong contralto voice. Her outgoing personality and deep knowledge of African American culture and musical roots made her a local favorite when she appeared on Terkel’s television show in the early 1950’s. In the segregated United States of that time, her artistry was confined mainly to African American audiences. In the huge ghettos of Chicago’s South Side, New York’s Harlem, and Los Angeles’s Watts, she began to reign supreme.

Jackson was born poor in New Orleans in 1911. She grew up listening to the blues recordings of singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey but gravitated more to the religious songs of the Baptist Church. Nevertheless, she thought that the more passionate singing in the Sanctified and Holiness churches, where instruments were allowed, matched better with the feelings she wanted to express. Hearing the local jazz musicians and their improvising bands also inspired her at an early age. After moving to Chicago’s South Side ghetto in 1927, she began to sing in church choirs and joined a small gospel group committed to the newer up-tempo gospel songs she admired. Singing at storefront churches and around the Chicago area, she started to develop the ecstatic and freely embellished style of handling spirituals and hymns that became her trademark.

Through the 1930’s, Jackson survived by singing and by running a series of small businesses including a florist’s shop, a hairdresser’s shop, and even a house-to-house homemade cosmetics sales operation. She also met Thomas A. Dorsey, a central figure in the creation of modern African American gospel songs. Dorsey had by this time turned away from his earlier blues performing, recording, and songwriting career to write gospel blues songs. These religious songs with blues tonalities soon caught on among the new migrants to Chicago from the Deep South who had grown up with the older African American religious song styles. Dorsey recaptured much of that style in his songs and slowly won over the more staid mainline church choirs and pastors—as well as their congregations—to the new impassioned singing of the good news (the gospel).

Teaming up with Jackson, Dorsey toured the Chicago area and the South, selling his songs on sheet music and playing piano behind Jackson’s interpretations of his songs. Jackson and Dorsey thus helped expose Northern African Americans to their folk-derived music. They came to a parting of ways, however, over her freedom with the printed music he wrote. Jackson had developed her own style of decorating, embellishing, slowing down, or speeding up traditional spirituals and hymns, and even the new songs, so that each of her performances was different. She had brought the old oral tradition, stemming from Africa, to the North. Her singing became a testimony-in-song to joy and faith, to suffering and loss, as she shouted and moaned or pushed her contralto into falsetto. The musical assimilation of the mainline churches, with formal music reading and stolidness, was not for her.

Jackson made her very first recording—on the Decca Decca Records
Record labels;Decca label—on May 21, 1937, but it went nowhere. The songs were recorded with a combination of piano and organ that she came to prefer for live performances throughout her career. Undaunted by the failure of her Decca single, she kept touring, singing in whatever church wanted her, communicating with audiences through inviting them to respond with hand clapping and sung responses in the traditional call-and-response style.

Jackson’s piano accompaniment was most often in the hands of Mildred Falls Falls, Mildred , who came to understand Jackson’s style and simply provided backing triplets or a percussive touch to Jackson’s improvisatory handling of lines and phrases. The organ, likewise, played its role by sustaining notes and chords while Jackson “worried” words and phrases and frequently sang in a free rhythm over the accompaniment. Using melisma (a group of notes sung to the same syllable), she freely altered melodies, repeated phrases, and marvelously reshaped old spirituals and new songs in her own style. With her style solidified and an audience clamoring for live performances, she was on her way.


Jackson’s success with the Apollo label from 1946 through 1954 made hers a household name among African Americans. She had a half-hour radio show in 1954 and 1955 and even broadened her repertoire to include pieces such as Brahms’s Lullaby and Silent Night. Network television seemed afraid of her in this segregated era. Even on radio and local Chicago television, she found pressures that bothered her and that she would encounter for the rest of her career.

Jackson never sang a song the same way twice. As she moved into the world of recordings, radio and television broadcasts, and the mass media, she found producers, directors, and musicians who did not know black culture or religious music and who pressured her to limit the length of her performances to fit into time slots or the limits of singles recordings. Studio musicians and orchestras worked from written parts and scores; she was used to improvising and establishing her own pulse with Mildred Falls. This difference created conflicts in her recording career. Later in her career, strings, horns, guitars, drums, and large choirs were added to her recordings—sometimes overdubbed—and she thought that this sometimes compromised her music. As she became more mainstream, some of her roots in folk traditions were lost.

A major turning point in her career came in 1951, when she appeared at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts. Singing her songs and explaining their roots before an audience of jazz experts and musicologists, Jackson was surprised to find a fan in John Hammond, a famous talent scout and record producer. He soon worked to get her a contract with Columbia Records Columbia Records
Record labels;Columbia , a mainstream label that had earlier, under Hammond’s guidance, recorded such important artists as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie. Hammond had organized the famous 1938 and 1939 Spirituals to Swing concerts in New York and would later in his career help get Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen signed to Columbia. He had a great ear for traditional and indigenous American music. In Jackson, he saw an important American talent with folk roots.

From 1954 until her death from heart failure in 1972, Jackson recorded for Columbia. She recorded many albums of spirituals, hymns, and gospel songs. Although producers urged her to appeal to pop audiences by recording pallid inspirational songs and Christmas carols, she largely resisted. Some recordings were overproduced with orchestral accompaniment, but she now had the opportunity to record her songs without restrictive time limits. Most of her recordings were albums; some featured live performances such as those at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival and on foreign tours. Two singles reached the pop charts: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” in 1958 and “Silent Night, Holy Night” in 1962.

In the late 1950’s and through the 1960’s her fame spread across the world. She was acclaimed in Germany, France, Sweden, England, Japan, and India, among other countries. She met presidents and royalty and sang at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural. Utilizing the William Morris booking agency, she appeared at better venues, from Carnegie Hall to Constitution Hall. In the 1960’s, she also became a favorite guest on network television shows including those of Dinah Shore, Ed Sullivan, and Steve Allen. Church benefits and one-night stands continued, but Jackson now had a wider choice.

One of the most important aspects of her life was her deep and lasting friendship for and active support of Martin Luther King, Jr. She shared with him the Christian message of love and tolerance and a sharp sense of the injustices that they and all African Americans had to endure. After meeting King in 1955, Jackson immediately took to singing for his rallies. Risking her safety, she journeyed to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 to sing gospel songs for the civil rights demonstrators. She walked with King and thousands of others through the violent streets of Chicago in 1966 in a demand for open housing. As a preacher, King shared with Jackson a love of spirituals and gospel song. For him, she sang the spiritual “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned” “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned” (traditional)[I Been Buked and I Been Scorned] before thousands in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the great March on Washington in August, 1963, just before he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Most poignantly, she sang his favorite gospel song at his funeral in April, 1968: Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (Dorsey)[Take My Hand, Precious Lord]

Jackson’s example of finding a mass audience for religious music ran parallel to the popularity of white singers such as Tennessee Ernie Ford, whose network television show in the 1950’s and 1960’s featured his singing of gospel songs. His best-selling spiritual albums also brought the old spirituals, hymns, and new gospel songs to a mainstream audience. Because a considerable overlap exists between the repertoires of white and black religious song, Ford’s efforts added further to the acceptance of the gospel in song. Singers such as Elvis Presley Presley, Elvis and Johnny Cash also fostered a mass acceptance of religious songs. It was Presley who sang Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley” “Peace in the Valley” (Dorsey)[Peace in the Valley] on Ed Sullivan’s television show in January, 1957, and then saw his recording of it become a pop hit. In 1971, Jackson sang the classic folk spiritual “Amazing Grace” on Johnny Cash’s network television show. Jackson set an example of service to her music and her people. Her influence crossed racial lines and helped immeasurably to ensure the emergence of one of America’s great musical forms. “I Want to Rest” (Morris)[I Want to Rest]
“(I’m Going to) Wait Until My Change Comes” (Dorsey)[Im Going to Wait Until My Change Comes]
“I’m Going to Tell God” (McKinney)[Im Going to Tell God]
Gospel music

Further Reading

  • Cusic, Don. The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990. A good general survey of the history and roots of religious music in America, both black and white. A chapter discusses Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke together. Good bibliography. Indexed fully.
  • Goreau, Laurraine. Just Mahalia, Baby: The Mahalia Jackson Story. Gretna, La.: Pelican, 1984. The most comprehensive biography to date. Goreau, a friend and intimate in later years, offers six hundred pages of anecdotal coverage of Jackson’s professional and personal life. The writing is often awkward. No notes as such. Many photos and an index. Valuable for its insights and sense of the milieu and the tensions of Jackson’s life.
  • Harris, Michael W. The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A fine and detailed study not only of Dorsey’s career but also of the whole Chicago scene in the 1930’s, with reference to the new gospel style of singing. Dorsey’s work with Jackson is discussed. Good and comprehensible (for a general readership) musical analysis. Notes and index.
  • Heilbut, Tony. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. The best popular history of black gospel music. Well written and engaging. Includes a chapter on Jackson. Illustrated. Indexed by names and songs, with discography.
  • Jackson, Mahalia, with Evan McLeod Wylie. Movin’ On Up. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1966. A short autobiography, but useful and insightful, especially concerning Jackson’s feelings about civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr. Complements Goreau in capturing the strongly held views Jackson had but kept somewhat private.
  • Lovell, John. Black Song: The Forge and the Flame, the Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out. New York: Macmillan, 1972. The long subtitle captures the focus of this long book. A fully comprehensive overview. Indexed thoroughly, with good source notes.
  • Orgill, Roxane. Mahalia: A Life in Gospel Music. Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2002. Biography emphasizing the “rags-to-riches” aspect of Jackson’s life and career, as well as her contributions to the struggle for civil rights. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Rookmaaker, Hendrik R. New Orleans Jazz, Mahalia Jackson and the Philosophy of Art. Edited by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker. Carlisle, Cumbria, England: Piquant, 2002. Relates Jackson’s contributions to music history to those of New Orleans jazz singers and musicians and compares and contrasts the aesthetics of the two styles of music. Bibliographic references.
  • Schwerin, Jules. Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A short anecdotal memoir by a documentary filmmaker who worked with Jackson. Illustrated, discography, no index.

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