In the 1950s, R&B and rock 'n' roll was aimed squarely at the bottom half of the body while gospel took care of the rest. Blues shouting came out of gospel in the 1940s. So did the passion and conviction of jazz solos and jazz vocals. In the world of gospel singing in the 1940s and '50s, the Queen of Pews was Mahalia Jackson. Born in New Orleans in 1911, Jackson single-highhandedly turned church singing into a high art, lifting the music with an earthy emotionalism, feverish conviction and operatic power that left the devout and secular thunderstruck. By the 1960s, she was perhaps the world's best-known and African-American singer and most revered civil rights advocate.
As Anthony Heilbut writes in his superb liner notes to Mahalia Jackson: Moving on Up a Little Higher, a new 22-song album from Shanachie Records, "It was this combination of raw amateurism and a world-class voice that made her so appealing. Had she exhibited more vocal control, she might have seemed too grand or 'seditty' [pretty]. Had her voice been less spectacular, she would have seemed just another gospel shouter." Heilbut, of course, is the author of The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (Anchor).
The new album features previously unreleased recordings between 1946 and 1957, including material from two of her most important concerts—a 1951 symposium that introduced her to an integrated audience and her Sunday morning performance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. There also are New York church performances and a hair-raising recording of her singing Before This Time Another Year in 1954.
This is listening music, the sound of soul before the word existed. I found myself transfixed by Jackson's performances, with her thunderous elation and elated vocal tones and feeling. She's also the source every major soulful singer has tapped—from Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin to Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston. In the case of these singers and others, Mahalia as gospel godmother left her mark and continues to do so today. All forms of message music can be traced back to the heart of this woman, and this new album features Jackson's electrifying talent at its very best.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Mahalia Jackson: Moving on Up a Little Higher (Shanachie) here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Mahalia Jackson's astonishing a cappella performance of Before This Time Another Year from 1954...
And here's Have a Little Talk With Jesus from 1951...