On Feb. 12, 1954, a Chicago Daily News photographer captured this image of gospel singer and Chicago resident Mahalia Jackson. Despite her enormous success in New York City, Paris and London, Jackson hadn’t yet reached the same level of fame in her hometown.
Almost a month later on March 6, the photo finally ran in the paper along with a great profile of the prolific singer, introducing her to many, mostly white, Chicago audiences for the first time.
“Miss Jackson’s sweeping contralto voice draws huge audiences anywhere she sings,” reporter M.W. Newman wrote. “Two of her records have sold more than a million copies each.”
At just 42, Jackson, who was born in New Orleans but considered Chicago her hometown, outdrew Toscanini and Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall in New York, Newman noted. During her 1952 European tour, a single radio gig in the Netherlands resulted in 20,000 orders for the recording.
“They didn’t understand English,” the singer said of her Dutch listeners, “but the feeling got through, I guess.”
Jackson remained ever loyal to gospel singing, even as nightclubs and theaters begged her to perform popular songs. She told Newman that she never received a singing lesson in her life.
“As a girl in New Orleans, I heard the blues sung all the time,” she recalled. “That’s how I learned to sing. The walls were thin and the music came through from everywhere.”
At her “attractive” apartment at 3728 Prairie Ave., Jackson said she craved the simple things in life — good food and good friends. She hoped, Newman wrote, that her hometown would one day give her a wider reception.
“The blues are a sad song but the sacred song gives you hope for a better tomorrow,” she told Newman. “It lifts you up. The spirit is bigger than the song.”