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Revisiting the Power and Glory of a Gospel Queen

Music: Three remastered CDs resurrect the explosive sound of Mahalia Jackson, who died at age 60 in 1972.

July 07, 2001|OWEN MCNALLY | HARTFORD COURANT

Even almost three decades after her death, gospel queen Mahalia Jackson's pricelesslegacy for American music retains its luster and its soul.

So much so, in fact, that Columbia/Legacy has issued three digitally remastered CDs that run over with the power and the glory of the majestic singer .

Featuring previously unreleased selections along with already issued material, the three CDs are a new compilation of vintage material called "Sunday Morning Prayer Meeting With Mahalia Jackson" and two classic albums from the 1960s on CD for the first time, "Mahalia Jackson in Concert Easter Sunday, 1967" and "Mahalia Jackson: Recorded Live in Europe During Her Latest Concert Tour."

Even though Jackson sings about Christian themes, her message of joy is universal, as is the sheer, dramatic expressiveness of her booming, soulful contralto voice.

You don't have to be a member of the Pentecostal church to appreciate the impassioned qualities of her voice--one of the most spectacular, pure sounds of the 20th century--any more than you must be a practicing Catholic to love the cool, fluid lines of the Gregorian chant, or to be bowled over by the grandeur of Renaissance art steeped in religious themes. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics and members of any faith can tune in and find much beauty in the eloquent, intimate world Jackson creates .

Jackson's rendition of the spiritual "Were You There?" is an example of a devotional work whose expressiveness opens the door for one and all. Enter, and you can savor anything you might desire, from spiritual enlightenment to secular delights.

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Here and on many other tracks throughout the three CDs, Jackson builds the emotional tension to the point where it's just about ready to explode. "She expresses in her gospel songs and spirituals an ardor that no saint has surpassed," Whitney Balliett wrote in the New Yorker magazine not long after the Easter concert.

Although she had been ill and hadn't given a major performance in three years, Jackson delivered a superb comeback performance here on March 26, 1967, in Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall.

Jackson sometimes sings with a bluesy passion and natural sense of jazz swing that rivals her first great idol, Bessie Smith. On any number of songs, including "Down by the Riverside," "Elijah Rock," "Trouble in My Way," "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "It Don't Cost Very Much," Jackson swings and emotes far better and more ecstatically than most secular jazz and blues vocalists.

What you hear is the vital link between African American church music and its illegitimate, worldly offspring, including the blues, jazz, R&B and rock.

Despite pleas by friends and associates to cross over into the more lucrative land of the blues, Jackson stuck with gospel, her one true musical faith.

"Anybody that sings the blues is in a deep pit, yelling for help," she would tell these devilish, or, at least, secular-minded advisors.

"Blues are the songs of despair. Gospel songs belong to the Lord. Gospel songs are the songs of hope," she'd reply when telling such tempters to get behind her. Or even more bluntly, she'd say: "I'd rather sing about 'old man Jesus' than about some old man some woman has lost."

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Of course, all this was a slight bit disingenuous since this saint of gospel music brilliantly insinuated the spirit of the blues--the so-called music of Satan--into holy songs.

If this was a heretical hybrid, it wasn't surprising considering her background. After all, she grew up listening to and absorbing the impious, sensuous moaning and hollering of such divas of the blues as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith.

Two of Jackson's cousins even toured with Ma Rainey's raucous and rolling roadshow.

Born and raised initially in a three-room shack in New Orleans, young Mahalia later eked out a living by scrubbing floors, cleaning clothes and working as a maid in Chicago. As a side effect of childhood poverty, the gospel superstar in later life would insist on being paid in cash after a performance.

Often she would leave a concert with $5,000 pinned inside her brassiere, wrote her biographer Jules Schwerin ("Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel" Oxford University Press, 1992).

Having cash in hand, or even in her bra, was a talisman of success. More important, it was a tangible guarantee against the return of the hard times she suffered in her childhood.

With her cash-on-the-barrel-head policy, the rags-to-riches gospel queen earned an estate of more than $1 million before she died in 1972 at age 60. Her death followed years of suffering from diabetes and heart disease, aggravated by her ballooning weight, which reached 260 pounds.

As a singer, she created a precious musical legacy whose value hasn't diminished despite the radical ups and downs of pop market trends. And now, quite happily, a slice of her musical estate is available once again.

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