Widely acknowledged as the "Queen of Gospel," Mahalia Jackson was a major musical and cultural force whose popularity and influence made her an icon in African-American culture for decades; Harry Belafonte once described her as "the single most powerful black woman in the United States." Possessing both a powerful presence and an authoritative contralto voice, Jackson remained one of America's top-selling Gospel artists for most of her career.
Growing up in New Orleans, Jackson began singing in church as a child in the 1920s, and performed around the city with the Johnson Gospel Singers, one of the first commercial Gospel acts. In the mid-30s, the esteemed Gospel composer Thomas Dorsey became her mentor, touring with Jackson for 14 years and providing her with such classic songs as "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," which became her signature number. Jackson first recorded in the early '30s, and quickly found success.
Her popularity surged in the late 40s after she signed with the Apollo label and released "Move On Up a Little Higher," which sold an unprecedented 8 million copies. In 1950, Jackson became the first Gospel singer to perform at New York's Carnegie Hall, as part of the history-making first Negro Gospel and Religious Music Festival. In 1952, she undertook the first of several tours of Europe, where was widely hailed and played to capacity crowds.
In 1954, Jackson signed with Columbia Records and began hosting her own radio show with the CBS network — still a rarity for African-American performers at the time. In 1957, she was the featured act in the Newport Jazz Festival's first Gospel music showcase, and in 1961 she sang at President John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball. She became an icon of the Civil Rights movement, ignoring death threats to perform at key rallies and fundraising shows for the cause. Jackson was also a prominent presence at the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1968, she sang at King's funeral after his assassination.
Over the years, Jackson's success led to frequent suggestions that she perform secular music, but she steadfastly refused to do so. She nonetheless received criticism from some Gospel purists for her exuberant, hand-clapping style, which some traditionalists dismissed as "bringing Jazz into the church." Jackson died of heart failure in Chicago in 1972.