Pat Conroy is 70 today.
Pat Sajak’s wheel of fortune has spun for 69 years.
Hillary Rodham Clinton is 68 today.
Westley is 53. That’s actor Cary Elwes.
And it’s the birthday of Mahalia Jackson, born in New Orleans 104 years ago today. As The New York Times noted in Ms. Jackson’s 1972 obituary:
“I been ‘buked and I been scorned/ I’m gonna tell my Lord/ When I get home/ Just how long you’ve been treating me wrong,” she sang in a full, rich contralto to the throng of 200,000 people as a preface to Dr. King’s “I’ve got a dream” speech.
The song, which Dr. King had requested, came as much from Miss Jackson’s heart as from her vocal cords. The granddaughter of a slave, she had struggled for years for fulfillment and for unprejudiced recognition of her talent.
She received the latter only belatedly with a Carnegie Hall debut in 1950. Her following, therefore, was largely in the black community, in the churches and among record collectors.
Although Miss Jackson’s medium was the sacred song drawn from the Bible or inspired by it, the words–and the “soul” style in which they were delivered–became metaphors of black protest, Tony Heilbut, author of “The Gospel Sound” and her biographer, said yesterday. Among blacks, he went on, her favorites were “Move On Up a Little Higher,” “Just Over the Hill” and “How I Got Over.”
Singing these and other songs to black audiences, Miss Jackson was a woman on fire, whose combs flew out of her hair as she performed. She moved her listeners to dancing, to shouting, to ecstasy, Mr. Heilbut said. By contrast, he asserted, Miss Jackson’s television style and her conduct before white audiences was far more placid and staid.
Had Mahalia Jackson been born a few decades later, when she could have sung her soul for audiences black and white, she, Mahalia Jackson, and not Aretha Franklin, would have been the Queen of Soul and the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even so, she is an inductee.
In Jackson’s own words, “Rock and roll was stolen out of the sanctified church!” Certainly, in the unleashed frenzy of the “spirit feel” style of gospel epitomized by such singers as Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one can hear the rousing roots of rock and roll. One of Jackson’s accompanists was keyboardist Billy Preston, who went on to great fame as a rock and R&B star. But religious passion was paramount in Jackson’s life, and no sacred-to-secular transformation would mark her career as it did so many others. “Her voice is a heartfelt express of all that is most human about us—our fears, our faith, our hope for salvation,” David Ritz wrote in his liner notes for Mahalia Jackson: 16 Most Requested Songs. “Hope is the hallmark of Mahalia Jackson and the gospel tradition she embodies.”
Harry Belafonte called her “the single most powerful black woman in the United States.”