Born Mahalia Jackson on October 26, 1912, in New Orleans, Louisiana, she was nicknamed “Halie.” The third of six children, Jackson grew up in New Orleans and absorbed the sounds of parade music and brass bands. She later discovered the blues, a music labeled the “devil's music” by regular church-goers, and listened secretly to recordings of singers like Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith.
In 1927 at the age of thirteen Jackson moved to Chicago where she joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church. Two years later, Jackson met the gospel musician and songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey who invited her to sing at the Pilgrim Baptist Church. In 1937 Jackson recorded four sides for the Decca label, including the song “God's Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares.”
Jackson's big break came in 1947 when she released gospel music's first million-selling record “Move on Up a Little.” In 1949 her song “Let the Holy Ghost Fall on Me” won the French Academy's Grand Prix du Disque. Soon afterward, she toured Europe and recorded the gospel hit “In the Upper Room.” During the 1960s Jackson became a musical ambassador. Not only did she perform at the White House and at London's Albert Hall, but she sang at the 1963 March on Washington, as well as at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral ceremony in 1968.
On January 27, 1972, Jackson died in Chicago of a heart condition. At her funeral at Great Salem Baptist, some forty-five thousand mourners gathered to pay their respects. She was hailed as the world's greatest gospel singer, and her rich contralto voice became a national institution. Through live performances, recordings, and television appearances, Jackson elevated gospel music to a level of popularity unprecedented in the history of African American religious music.
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