Imagine the vibrant streets of New Orleans in 1911, where the rhythms of jazz and blues permeate the air. In this lively city, a legendary voice was born—Mahalia Jackson. She came into this world as the child of Charity Clark and Johnny Jackson, destined to become a gospel icon.
The Clarks, her maternal family, were devout Baptists, attending Plymouth Rock Baptist Church. Within the hallowed walls of this church, they followed a strict code of conduct: no jazz, no card games, and certainly no “high life,” which meant refraining from drinking or visiting bars and juke joints. Even dancing was only permissible when the spirit moved you during church service. A young Mahalia joined the children’s choir at the tender age of four.
However, tragedy struck when Mahalia’s mother, Charity Clark, passed away when she was just five years old. Aunt Duke stepped in to care for Mahalia and her half-brother. While attending McDonough School 24, Mahalia found herself frequently filling in for her aunts when they needed assistance. Soon, she was missing school more often than not, as her family relied on her to take on increasing responsibilities at home.
Aunt Duke, known for her strictness and fiery temper, made life challenging. The church offered Mahalia solace and escape from her aunt’s moods. It became her second home, and within its walls, her love for music blossomed. She watched the adult choir at Plymouth Rock perform traditional Protestant hymns, but it was the congregational singing, characterized by call and response, that truly stirred her soul. These songs had a rhythmic fervor, punctuated by clapping and foot-tapping—a “bounce” that would resonate within Mahalia for decades to come.
Mahalia’s remarkable voice allowed her to join the junior choir at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church. Growing up in the heart of New Orleans, she was immersed in a rich musical tapestry, from blues wafting out of neighboring homes to lively second line funeral processions celebrating life. Her cousin Fred, unafraid of Aunt Duke’s sternness, introduced her to the enchanting melodies of Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, and Ma Rainey, which she would sing along to while tackling her chores. These early influences would shape Mahalia into the powerhouse she was destined to become.
Eventually, Mahalia grew tired of the constant clashes with Aunt Duke and decided to move out. She relocated to Chicago, where she lived with Aunt Hannah and Auntie Alice. Although she initially dreamt of becoming a nurse or a teacher, life had a different path in mind. She took on domestic and factory jobs to make ends meet. It was during this time that she joined the Johnson Singers, one of the earliest gospel groups.
Mahalia’s musical journey was gaining momentum, and she was making a name for herself in the Chicago church scene. She began receiving invitations to sing at funerals, political rallies, and revivals, all of which brought her closer to her true calling. Her husband, Isaac “Ike” Hockenhull, a chemist turned postman, ventured into the world of cosmetics, crafting homemade hair and skincare products using formulas from his mother. Mahalia joined him in this endeavor, hoping to sell the jars during her travels.
But destiny had grander plans for her. Mahalia was presented with opportunities to join renowned musicians like Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines in their bands, yet she declined them all. Instead, she began calling herself a “fish and bread singer,” working not only for herself but also for a higher purpose—serving God.
In 1931, Mahalia recorded her first singles, intending to sell them at National Baptist Convention meetings. However, these records didn’t sell as expected. But as her Sunday audiences continued to grow, she found herself in demand as a soloist for funerals, political rallies, and even Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign in 1932.
By 1935, Mahalia Jackson had become the sole professional gospel singer in Chicago. She balanced her career choices with an extraordinary moral code, eschewing secular entertainment as a vow to God. Her unwavering commitment to her faith and her audience continued to shape her journey.
One fateful encounter in 1937 with music producer Mayo “Ink” Williams led to Mahalia’s recording session with Decca Records. Although the initial singles had modest sales, they reached jukeboxes in New Orleans, where Mahalia’s family would gather in bars to listen to her songs repeatedly.
Decca Records proposed that she sing blues, but she remained steadfast in her devotion to gospel. In 1938, the Johnson Singers disbanded, yet Mahalia persevered. She earned her beautician’s license from Madam C. J. Walker’s school, opening a beauty salon that soon thrived. Her reputation as a gospel sensation continued to grow, with gigs at large concert halls, television appearances, and even film roles in “St. Louis Blues” and “Imitation of Life.”
As her music reached overseas, Mahalia captivated audiences in France, receiving accolades and airtime on French public radio. Her records made their way to the UK, where they were cherished by jazz enthusiasts. Mahalia