By Sherman Lee Houston, Jr., Special to ASSIST News Service
GRAND CANE, LOUISIANA (ANS – August 27, 2016) — When Mahalia Jackson died in 1972, President Richard Nixon issued a statement that said, “Millions of ears will miss the sound of that great rich voice making a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
It was in my early childhood when I first heard that “great rich voice.” My dad had a cassette tape of Mahalia entitled “Mahalia Jackson Mahalia.” I still recall how mesmerized I was as I listened to her sing “Just over the Hill”, “Move on Up a Little Higher,” and “Hands of God.” One of my absolute favorites from that tape remains “I’m Glad Salvation is Free.”
From there I went on a rampage trying to collect everything on Mahalia I could get my hands on. The fascination continues to this day. In 2012, I paid $85.00 to obtain a cassette of her singing a song I never heard her do, entitled “God’s Love Bubbles over in my Heart.” This particular song was from a television show called “That’s Life” in 1968. I have collected Vinyl, video tapes, cassettes, CD’s, books, magazines, and concert programs of this great singer.
One of my most prized items is a concert program that she, Charles Clency, and Gwendolyn Lightner, signed in Tokyo in April of 1971. I also sing Gospel Music myself, and I do not want traditional gospel to be forgotten. While many people are singing contemporary songs, I choose to keep music like Mahalia’s alive. A lot of the songs I sing in churches draw upon Mahalia’s repertoire and other traditional songs.
Indeed, it is Mahalia’s great rich voice, which lives on in her recordings that provoked my research into her life and career. In the liner notes of an album “The Great Mahalia Jackson” released after Mahalia’s death, Coretta Scott King said, “Miss Jackson’s philosophy of life shone through her songs. She sang from the innermost depths of her soul and her heart.” This is another reason I have such a deep respect for Mahalia Jackson.
It is very evident in her recordings and performances that she truly believed in the words she sang. Mahalia did not sing a song just to sing it. The words had to have meaning. Irving Townsend said Mahalia sang “Danny Boy” because she thought it beautiful. One of my favorite recordings of Mahalia is “He’s Pleading in Glory for Me.” Mahalia did this song at Music Inn in 1951. I can close my eyes while Mahalia sings this song and feel the meaning of every word.
I am truly in awe when I consider the fact that Mahalia had no musical training whatsoever. I discovered in Darlene Donloe’s biography of Mahalia that she had only one music lesson. The teacher was a classically trained professor named Dubois. Dubois did not like the way Mahalia did “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” Dubois told Mahalia she hollered too much and that her singing style was “no credit to the Negro race.” Dubois told Mahalia that she needed to sing so that Whites could understand her. Dubois just did not know how incorrect he was. Mahalia’s organist, Charles Clency, who played for the last four years of Mahalia’s life said that “she set the standard for Gospel Music all over the world.” Mahalia moved beyond her initial African American base to worldwide!
Mildred Falls recalled that Mahalia “never formally studied music, and couldn’t read a line of printed score.” However, Mahalia knew the way she wanted to sing a song. Mildred said Mahalia’s interpretation often proved an overwhelming emotional experience. In researching Mahalia, I’ve learned that she was a human being just like everyone else. She had her flaws. Mahalia instructed her biographer Laurraine Goreau, “Don’t make me no saint baby.” Mahalia said “I’m just a frail human being wrestling demons every day, trying to make my way with the help of the Lord.”
Mahalia went through two failed marriages. Her first marriage was to Isaac “Ike” Hockenhull. Ike wanted Mahalia to abandon Gospel and sing secular music. Mahalia’s second marriage to Sigmund Galloway ended in a very messy, public divorce. In a Jet magazine article from 1968, readers learn Mahalia accused Galloway of cruelty and adultery. Both men died not long after Mahalia. However, one of her well-known songs included “I’m going to live the life I sing about.” Mahalia truly did that.
Mahalia turned down very appealing offers to sing pop, jazz, and blues. Mahalia also refused to sing in night clubs where liquor was sold. Mahalia even turned down an offer of $25,000 a week to sing in a Las Vegas Night Club. She still turned down this offer after being told there would be no liquor sold, or orders taken, while she performed. All of this, in my opinion, was the great secret of Mahalia’s success. Mahalia stayed very devout to her faith, and stood up for what she believed in no matter the cost. If I could have met her, I would ask her to cook for me. I have Mahalia’s cook book, and have read many times about her exquisite culinary talents.
In the earlier referenced Liner notes from an album released after Mahalia’s death, Coretta Scott King said, “Miss Jackson loved people, and she used her enormous talent to inspire people, renew their hope, and benefit the cause…” Mahalia Jackson worked very closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mahalia first met Dr. King not long after purchasing a brick home in Chicago’s all white neighborhood of Chatham. Mahalia Jackson found herself the first African-American in the neighborhood. Mahalia received threatening phone calls, and people shot bullets through her window.
Eventually the neighborhood became all black. Mahalia said businessmen, doctors, and lawyers eventually filled the neighborhood. She made light of the situation and remarked, “The same birds are still in the trees. I guess it didn’t occur to them to leave just because we moved in.” This reminds me of another of my favorite songs by Mahalia, Thomas A. Dorsey’s “There is no Color line Around the Rainbow.” Mahalia’s voice in the opening of the song is hauntingly beautiful. The lyrics state, “One little bird singing on yonder’s brow they don’t seem to care no how, if your skin is black, if your skin is white if you want to listen they’ll sing all night…”
In an interview with Granville White, featured on the back of the album Mahalia Jackson sings the Best-Loved Hymns of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahalia recalled how she first met Dr. King. Mahalia said she was the first gospel singer Ralph Abernathy called to Mobile, Alabama during a bus boycott. Ralph Abernathy wanted to raise money to obtain transportation for people to go to work. She previously knew his parents years ago from the Baptist Convention. Mahalia said she was the first one to go down there to help raise money. From there Mahalia and Dr. King formed a very close friendship. Mahalia once remarked in a March 1962 Jet Magazine article that if she’s not helping Martin Luther King, doing something for the church, or the NAACP she hardly had the time to sit down and talk about her own life.
According to Laurraine Goreau, Dr. King always told Mahalia what to sing preceding his speeches, and it was always the right choice. Mahalia assisted Dr. King in many ways, including raising money for him and his followers if they were arrested. Her organist Charles Clency remembered in a 2015 interview, that Mahalia was a close friend of the first Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. Clency also said that Mahalia was “very active in politics and a friend of all the preachers.” It was also dangerous to work so actively in such a movement.
Mahalia and her pianist Mildred once stayed at Ralph Abernathy’s home. Four weeks after they left a bomb shattered the bedroom where they slept. Mahalia’s pianist Mildred remarked to Mahalia “I feel so hurt, just like I was there!” Mahalia told Mildred if she was there “you’d be more hurt.” When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Mahalia had promised Dr. King she would be there. However, Mahalia canceled and said she would not be flying. Upon finding out the news on that fateful day, Mahalia’s secretary Jean Childers told Mahalia, if she had flown she would have been right there! In a 2013 interview, Clarence B. Jones, advisor to Dr. King, recalled how close the two were.
Whenever Dr. King felt low he would call Mahalia. Jones referred to it as “telephone gospel therapy.” Jones recalled Martin telling Mahalia “Please sing to me, I’m having a rough day today.” In many cases, tears fell down Martin’s eyes as Mahalia sang. Martin would tell Mahalia, “You are giving me the Lord’s voice this morning.” At Dr. King’s funeral, Mahalia sang “Precious Lord.” This was a selection Martin often requested of Mahalia, and he told her if he went before her he wanted her to sing this at his funeral. Aretha Franklin sang this at Mahalia’s own funeral four years later. Dr. King and Mahalia did discuss that she would sing this song at the March on Washington. However, Mahalia ended up singing “I’ve been Buked” and “How I Got Over.” In a letter to Mahalia, Martin told her she “has been fighting in the struggle for so long.”
He once told her words could not express how valuable her service has been to the Negro Revolution and the S.C.L.C. It was Mahalia who encouraged Martin to “tell em about the dream” at the 1963 March on Washington. According to Mildred Falls, Mahalia’s accompanist, their greatest moment in the Civil Rights movement was the March on Washington. Mildred also recalled how Mahalia established the Mahalia Jackson foundation to award scholarships. With Mahalia’s assistance more than 50 young people went through college.
Near the end, Mahalia and Martin both looked over the Mountaintop and they could see the Promised Land. Martin said the night before his assassination, “We as a people will get to the Promised Land so I’m happy tonight I’m not worried about anything I’m not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” In June 1971, Mahalia received the St. Vincent De Paul Award for Serving God through the needs of men.
In an interview not long after, Mahalia looked towards the future, and said the following words. “The Lord will straighten all this right…He knows what people are plotting to do to you right now. He knows all that he knows how to stop it. If man is so powerful and so strong why didn’t he stop these earthquakes and these whirl winds. He ain’t nothing but a piece of clay like me and you. Ain’t nothing to him. So I fear nothing but God and I trust in the Lord ‘cause I know he’s got his angels, he’s a fence of protection around me and I glorify him I want the world to know that… my, my, my, my soul feel happy now.” Considering this, Mahalia, like Martin, looked over the mountaintop and saw what lay ahead. All things considered, this is why I have such great respect for Mahalia.
Her faith was unwavering, and her music has truly comforted me. Mildred Falls recalled that Mahalia said when she was a little girl, “Someday the sun is going to shine down on me in some faraway place.” Mahalia truly earned “her place in the sun.”
In life Mahalia truly moved on Up a Little Higher. She went from poor beginnings to concert halls all over the world. I can see her now still moving on up a little higher, sitting with old man Daniel, talking with her friends and kindred, and meeting her loving mother. Where it is always howdy, howdy and never goodbye!
Here are the YouTube links to some of my favorite songs:
Photo Captions: 1) Mahalia Jackson sings at the historic March on Washington, as Dr. King (bottom right) looks on. (Photo: Bob Parent, Getty Images). 2) Mahalia Jackson autographed concert program in Tokyo: April 1971, from Author’s collection). 3) Photo from Mahalia Jackson’s very last concert in Germany, September 1971. (Source: Just Mahalia Baby, Laurraine Goreau 1975). 4) LP of Mahalia singing Martin Luther King’s Best-Loved Hymns. (Features interview on the back of Mahalia speaking about her experiences with Dr. King.) 5) Mahalia Jackson Cooks Soul, from Author’s Collection). 6) Sherman Lee Houston Jr.
About the writer: Sherman Lee Houston, Jr., is a 24-year-old college student attending Louisiana State University in Shreveport. He received his Bachelors in History Cum Laude and is currently working on his Masters in Liberal Arts. He was born in Shreveport, Louisiana to Sherman and Bernice F. Houston. Upon receiving his Master’s, he plans to teach History on the collegiate level. In his free time, he loves to sing and occasionally write poetry. He also will write his Masters’ Thesis on the great Mahalia Jackson. He lives in Grand Cane, Louisiana with his parents, Bernice F. Houston and Sherman Houston.
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