“You know I’m really a church singer. I may have this rock and roll, but I got to feel this thing. HALELUIAH!” That’s Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, introducing “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957. And like her introduction, the message in the music is mixed as well. It’s a gospel tune, but Jackson belts it out like a blues singer. She admitted being inspired by Bessie Smith, but always insisted that “anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help,”
But when you dig into her earlier recordings, like ’48’s “Move On Up A Little Higher,” from a live radio broadcast at Chicago’s Greater Harvest Missionary Baptist Church, she’s shouting just as hard, but this time there’s no mistaking she’s hollerin’ for Jesus.
Any doubts about whose side she’s on is dispelled by “There’s a Great Change in Me” from a ’57 CBS TV broadcast. She’s rockin’ here, but her rock is Jesus.
All 22 cuts here are previously unreleased, and most are from strong live performances that show the queen at the height of her powers.
Jackson was in everybody’s house, a welcome visitor who cut across color lines with her music. A constant presence on radio and television, Jackson’s exuberance made her as much fun to look at as to listen to.
The live stuff here still sends chills up down your spine. The ’51 rendering of “Have A Little Talk With Jesus” could raise the dead, Jackson whipping the crowd at Wendell Phillips High School into a religious lather, introducing some new stuff into the curriculum fiery enough to set everybody’s souls and pants on fire.
Also culled from the ’57 Newport Jazz Festival performance,“Jesus Met the Woman At The Well” starts off sounding like a young Aretha Franklin, but by the chorus its clear that it’s Mahalia shoveling the coals on this gospel train, throttle wide open, smokin’ down the track.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe rocked harder with her electric guitar, and Clara Ward’s gospel singers with Marion Williams’ soaring, whooping lead on “Surely God Is Able” made her sweat when she had to follow her at Newport. But as documented here, Mahalia was the Queen, and 45 years after her death, her majesty still endures.