Claim to fame: singer
DOB: October 26, 1911
Date of Death: January 27, 1972
Diabetes Type: unknown
Mahalia Jackson was born on October 26, 1911 in New Orleans, Louisiana. At birth, she suffered from bowed legs, so doctors advised her to undergo surgery that would require her legs to be broken and reset. Jackson’s aunt, after whom she was named and who helped to raise her, refused the surgery. While Jackson’s condition was not corrected, it never prevented her from running around, dancing, and playing like a normal child. Jackson lost her mother at the age of five, so her aunt resumed the responsibility of raising her and her brother, along with their cousins.
Jackson picked up the hobby of singing, and inevitably fell in love with it. Since she rarely had time for it at home, most of her singing took place in church. She was baptized in the Mississippi River, and began her singing career at Mount Mariah Baptist Church. At the age of sixteen, Jackson moved, and was invited to join the Greater Salem Baptist Church Choir. She met composer Thomas A. Dorsey, who was then known as The Father of Gospel Music, in 1929; and in the mid-1930s, they began a fourteen-year relationship in which he gave her important musical advice and let her tour while singing his songs.
In 1936, Jackson was married, but after only five years, she divorced her husband because of his addiction to gambling and the pressure he put on her to sing secular music. In 1937, she recorded under the label Decca Coral, but her numbers did not meet expectations, and they ultimately let her go. In 1947, Jackson signed with the Apollo label, and released her first single, “Move on up A Little Higher.” The success of the album threw Jackson into fame in the U.S. and Europe; over eight million copies were sold. Throughout the rest of the 1940s and early 1950s, she released a number of hits.
In 1950, Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. By 1952, she was known as the world’s greatest gospel singer while touring all over Europe. In 1954, she signed a new contract with Columbia Records, and began a radio series on CBS. She sang at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, in front of 250,000 people during the March on Washington, and also at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Jackson toured Europe, the Caribbean, Asia, Japan, and India, and performed for the president of Liberia. In 1971, she ended her career with a concert in Germany before returning home to Chicago and opening up a flower shop and beauty salon with the money she had earned from her music career. On January 27, 1972, Mahalia Jackson died of complications from diabetes and heart failure. She will be remembered as one of the greatest gospel singers of the twentieth century.