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MAHALIA JACKSON

Gospel singer (1911-1972)

Mahalia Jackson reigned as a pioneer interpreter of gospel music, whose fervent contralto was one of the great voices of the 20th century.  Both gospel and rhythm & blues had their roots in the sanctified church, but whereas blues and R&B departed on secular paths that led to rock and roll, gospel stayed the spiritual course.  Nonetheless, the influence of gospel on R&B and rock and roll, especially through such force-of nature voices as Jackson's, is inescapable.  Little Richard has cited Jackson as an inspiration, calling her "the truth queen of spiritual singers." 

In Jackson's own words, "Rock and roll was stolen out of the sanctified church!" Certainly, in the unleashed frenzy of the "spirit feel" style of gospel epitomized by singers as Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one can hear the rousing roots of rock and roll.  One of Jackson's accompanists was keyboardist Billy Preston, who went on to great fame as a rock and R&B star.  But religious passion was paramount in Jackson's life, "Her voice is a heartfelt express of all that is most human about us, our fears, our faith, our hope for salvation,"  David Ritz wrote in his liner notes for Mahalia Jackson, 16 Most Requested Songs.

Revised: July 18, 2013.