Mahalia Jackson was born in New Orleans in 1911, where she was raised by her aunt from the age of four until Mahalia moved to Chicago in 1927. Growing up, Mahalia entertained her family with hymns and gospel tunes, her voice naturally booming. Aunt Mahalia “Duke” Paul did not allow secular music in her house, but Mahalia’s cousin would smuggle in rhythm & blues records by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainy, and others that the two teenagers listened to in secret and which influenced Mahalia’s appreciation for soulful music. She had begun supplementing her income as a teenager, working as a laundress, hotel maid, and baby sitter before finally recording the 1947 success, “Move Up a Little Higher.”
During the next decade, Mahalia packed houses in Europe, hosted her own Sunday evening radio show for CBS, and, in 1956, propelled gospel music into America’s mainstream with her performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1961, Mahalia sang at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. She was a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, singing to a crowd of 250,000 at the March on Washington at the bequest of her friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. She sang again for Dr. King at his funeral in 1968, after which she disappeared from most public political activities.
When Mahalia died of a heart attack in 1972, both New Orleans and Chicago paid tribute. Thousands of fans filed past her casket first in the Windy City and then again down in New Orleans. Throughout her career, Mahalia stayed true to the genre of gospel music, noting, “When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what's wrong.” She was a mentor to Aretha Franklin, a benefactress of the Mahalia Jackson Scholarship Foundation, and winner of the inaugural Grammy award in the category of Gospel Music or Other Religious Recording. The Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts , located inside the Louis Armstrong Park, reopened in January 2009.