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British Black Gospel, Part 3: Mahalia Jackson - the voice behind the dream

Steve Alexander Smith is the writer of British Black Gospel, a book which traces the roots of Gospel in Britain. Exclusively for MOBO.com, Smith will be provding an overview of the world leading US Gospel market, and how it compares historically and economically to its British counterpart - taking us from the origins of British black gospel up to the present day. You can find out more about the British Black Gospel book on Amazon

The story of Gospel music cannot flow from the pen of any author without tribute to the Queen and ambassador of the genre, the late, great, Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972).

Jackson was born into an incredible time period that was blessed with legendary black female singers, namely Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith who both gave their lives to Jazz and the Blues respectively. Although Jackson devoted her heart to gospel music, it was evident from her delivery that the influence of Fitzgerald and Smith had entered her psyche.

Her royal highness single-handedly took a form of music out of the black churches of America and spread it around the world. Her records sold in their millions simply because they touched and connected with millions of ordinary people. In a biography based on her life, a number of individuals claimed to have received miraculous healing from life-threatening illness after attending her live events. To this day, her powerful rendition of the Thomas Dorsey song ‘Precious Lord’ is viewed by purists as the ultimate gospel standard.

Hollywood film studios were one of many outlets to a voice that transcended insurmountable barriers. In the 1959 Lana turner classic movie, Imitation of Life, Jackson sang ‘Trouble of the World’ in one of the most moving funeral scenes ever depicted on film.

Skilled in business and commerce, she invested her profits in the hair, beauty and food industry. It was said that a poverty-stricken upbringing was the foundation behind her approach to the cautious financial management of her career. On a personal and emotional level she passed through the trauma of divorce but never ever lost focus when it came to delivering a top quality performance.

For many, Mahalia Jackson epitomises the sound of pure gospel. Having grown up in a poor neighbourhood, she took the music from the church to a world audience, singing in Britain in 1952 as part of a European tour.

Traditional gospel fans often debate that following the death of Mahalia Jackson in the early 1970s, the music lost its way and what followed was a deviation from the soul of the art form. The gospel hip hop generation of modern times would be more than happy to challenge this view. Her greatest platform however, was not the church rostrum or some grand auditorium, but the steps of the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC on 23rd August 1963. It was here in front of 200,000 people that Jackson sung the soundtrack to one of the greatest speeches of all time, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’.

Her contribution to the wider music industry was recognised in 1997 when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame. It is ironic that although Jackson’s many posthumous awards elevated her to new levels of fame, in life she rejected many lucrative offers to defect from gospel. Mahalia Jackson believed she was born to sing gospel music and her determination and dedication to remain grounded in a niche industry, won the hearts and minds of the mainstream.

Author: 

Steve Alexander Smith