For many commentators, Mahalia Jackson remains the definitive exponent of gospel music. At the age of four she sang at the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church and later joined the Mount Moriah Baptist Church junior choir. She mixed the singing styles of the Baptists with the Sanctified Church, which produced a powerful rhythm and beat, and fell under the influence of gospel artists Roberta Martin and Willie Mae Ford Smith. Coupled with the expressions of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, which in her teens Jackson had begun to observe, she developed the beginnings of a deep soulful blues style. In 1927, Mahalia moved from New Orleans to Chicago; after her first Sunday church service, where she had given a impromptu performance of her favourite song, 'Hand Me Down My Favourite Trumpet, Gabriel', she was invited to join the Greater Salem Baptist Church Choir and began touring the city's churches and surrounding areas with the Johnson Singers.
After several years with the Johnsons, Mahalia began to forge a solo career. During this time, as well as singing in church, she sang at political rallies and in 1937 became a song demonstrator of the talents of gospel songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey. That same year she recorded four tracks for Decca Records, to little commercial success, and was dropped soon afterwards. Jackson then toured extensively - in the intervening time she qualified as a beautician to safeguard her future - and recorded again, this time for the Apollo label in 1946, which included the first use in gospel music of the Hammond organ rather than the usual lone piano. These recordings, most of which feature a simple backdrop, show a singer of peerless quality, whose prudent use of slow hymns allowed space for her voice to develop its seemingly effortless inflections. Pianist Mildred Falls, who remained with Jackson throughout her career, added a measured, complimentary background. The success of the Apollo pressings, in particular 'Move On Up A Little Higher', culminated in 1954 with Jackson hosting and starring in her own Sunday night radio show for CBS, bringing black gospel music to a mass white audience. That same year she began recording for CBS, which resulted in a number of tight productions and a departure from the almost improvisational feel of previous sessions.
Although these releases lacked the simplicity of earlier work, they became a huge success, and in 1956 Jackson brought the studio audience at the Ed Sullivan Show to its feet. She later triumphed at the rain-soaked Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. Jackson became an ambassador for gospel music, and embarked on several successful European tours. Despite endless entreaties, she resisted crossing over into jazz or blues and pop for many years, although she did perform with Duke Ellington in his 'Black, Brown And Beige' suite. She sang at one of the inaugural balls for President John F. Kennedy in 1960, and often performed at Dr. Martin Luther King's rallies. In 1968 she sang at King's funeral, where she gave an emotional rendition of Dorsey's 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand'. Towards the end of her career Jackson did bow to pressure to record more secular songs and included, among others, 'What The World Needs Now Is Love' and Dion's classic anthem, 'Abraham, Martin And John'. Mahalia gave her last public performance in Germany in October 1971, and died of heart failure in 1972.
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