A Gospel Calling: Mahalia Jackson Sings

Even through the faded image and flat TV mono, the viewer feels the spirit.

By the early ’60s, Mahalia Jackson was well into her artistic ambassadorship as a gospel star who conquered Europe in multiple tours, picked up Grammy Awards in the category basically invented for her, and regularly appeared before mainstream viewers on American TV. Audiences had seen her in the stunning climax of “Imitation of Life” and they’d heard her sing “The Green Leaves of Summer” from The Alamo. Earlier in her career, she avoided the temptations of pop music, but her repertoire expanded at Columbia Records to include selected pop material that she somehow turned into gospels.

Mahalia Jackson Sings is a series of 58 songs, each program a few minutes long, originally presented as midnight sign-offs before NBC ceased broadcasting for the day. Each is presented simply with its own organic sense of design — sometimes arches, sometimes a dark stage, sometimes trees or a bench, sometimes visible accompanists around the singer or silhouetted in the background. Jackson usually wears a choir robe, occasionally a dress. Jackson usually wears a choir robe, occasionally a dress.

Sometimes she’s backed by organists Louise Weaver and Edward C. Robinson, sometimes a combo that includes Shelly Manne on drums, Barney Kessel on guitar, and Red Mitchell on upright bass. Jazzbos take note – -these guys were familiar with the devil’s music, and some purists complained about Mahalia’s consorting with jazz musicians and concert halls and suchlike secular frippery.

Her contralto rolls like a gong, sending out vibes that raise goosebumps before it larks upward. This magnificent instrument is shaped by her idiosyncratic diction, breathing, and key shifts. The sounds can become so abstract, she might as well be singing in an unknown language punctuated by gasps and hums, and then the straight purity of a word or phrase planes upon us like the revealed truth.

As eccentric as she might be, she doesn’t strangle the notes into pointlessly showy whoops that distract from their meaning. Her physical performance is equally impressive, though minimalist. Standing before an upright microphone, she has the dignity of a mountain: head raised, eyes lowered, hands clasped. In uptempo numbers, the mountain erupts and the hands take flight like doves. (The hands are used as an iconic image in the credits.)

All but two of these songs are authentic gospels. The first of the series is the staggering “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Stop me from digressing about Rodgers & Hammerstein, but here is an early sample of this song’s evolution into an anthem suitable for spiritual or secular inspiration, for graduations, soccer rallies, and Jerry Lewis telethons. It was sung by Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Doris Day, Shirley Bassey, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Tammy Wynette, by Barbra Streisand on the Emmy broadcast after 9/11, and on a commercial during the recent Olympics. The producers must have felt it hit the right note, as it were, because it became the title theme for the series.

Genius among singers is the ability to make any song worth hearing. This brings us to the other pop item in the series, a bit of drivel called “I Believe” (“for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows”) that Jane Froman commissioned in 1953 and debuted on her TV show to provide encouragement to the nation during the Korean War, according to IMDB. They say it was the first hit song to debut on TV, and it was covered by Frankie Laine, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, the Lettermen, and others. Jackson’s delivery strips off the saccharine piety and brings it close to genuine testament.

When the lyrics are rich and evocative, as in one of her signature tunes, “God Made Me Free”, they combine with her delivery to stunning effect. When she decrescendos on “sparrow”, as in the one his eye is on, you can see that bird plummet to earth. Here is the power Martin Luther King tapped into when he asked her to perform at the 1963 March on Washington, the power that can galvanize potentially reactionary complacency into strength of will in the march to progress.

This alchemy is the paradox of gospel. The most well-known of the songs here are “The Lord’s Prayer”, “When the Saints Go Marching In”, “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Down by the Riverside”, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “Give Me That Old Time Religion”.

The show was made by something called TEC (Television Enterprises Corporation) in 1961, produced by Irving Townsend and executive producer Harold Goldman. Musical director Mildred Falls had worked on Jackson’s CBS radio series in 1954. Bob Dahlquist is the art director. These little items were videotaped using at least three cameras, providing visual variety and such effects as mutliple superimpostions of the singer for the energetic “Didn’t It Rain”. The result is a sophisticated simplicity.

They are directed with unassuming yet elegant style by Larry Peerce, the son of another great voice of the century, the tenor Jan Peerce. He went on to direct a concert film, The Big T.N.T. Show (1966) and for a while had a bigscreen career that included One Potato Two Potato (1964), an acclaimed indie about interracial marriage, and such late ’60s / early ’70s items as The Incident, Goodbye Columbus and A Separate Peace. Later in the ’70s came hits with The Other Side of the Mountain and its sequel, and the action thriller Two Minute Warning. Then The Bell Jar hit a sour note with critics and box office and he went back into TV.

His credits on IMDB and Wikipedia don’t even mention this series. Neither do any of the TV reference books. There was a Mahalia Jackson Show in England in 1961, but this isn’t it. The package only says these shorts aired on NBC in the early ’60s. The existence of this material has been a mystery. Its surfacing now is welcome. Even through the faded image and flat TV mono, the viewer feels the spirit.

RATING 6 / 10