*If you don’t know Mahalia Jackson, you don’t know gospel music. If you’ve come in contact with Jackson along the way, perhaps as she told you about that great gettin’ up morning, you’ll be thrilled to listen to the 22 tracks on this superb new Mahalia Jackson album, Moving On Up A Little Higher.
That’s right. A NEW Mahalia Jackson album. As her glorious contralto was silenced in 1972, at the age of 59, and with the abundance of Jackson collections that have been released over the years, who knew that an entire album worth of her performances, from her artistic peak, was waiting to be heard?
Later generation singers like Whitney Houston are routinely called “The Voice.” As good as Houston was, only Mahalia Jackson could claim that title.
If you could combine the fervor of Tamela Mann with the earnest delivery of Shirley Caesar and the power and polish of CeCe Winans into one singer, you’d have someone who may have been able to be Mahalia Jackson’s opening act.
Martin Luther King, Jr. may have said it best: he said a voice like Mahalia’s comes along only once in a millennium. She was that good, and her God-given gifts are on full display on this new CD.
All of the new album’s 22 tracks are seeing the light of day for the very first time. Half of the album was buried in audio libraries in New Orleans and at Indiana University. Other tracks were recorded as Jackson stretched out during rehearsals. Still others were recorded live in 1957 at the Newport Jazz Festival, a year before her landmark recording from the next year’s event would make Jackson an international star.
For producer Anthony Heilbut, Moving On Up A Little Higher was a labor of love that was decades in the making.
“I’ve been thinking about Mahalia Jackson longer than she lived,” Heilbut said by phone. “I started going to the Apollo Theater in Harlem when I was 14 years old, and started listening to her and collecting gospel [music] very soon after that. That was when Mahalia was one of the most famous gospel singers around.”
“Years later, veteran producer John Hammond told me that the best concert he’d ever heard Mahalia give was her Newport Jazz Festival show in 1957,” Heilbut continued. “She was on the bill with Marion Williams, The Ward Singers and other gospel acts, and John thought that competition was what brought it out in Mahalia — Marion had sung so hard that Mahalia really had to deliver. Mahalia would never again do Newport with any other gospel singer after that.”
Moving On Up A Little Higher is a thrilling treasure trove for gospel music fans, or for anyone who wants to really get an idea of who this trailblazing artist really was. The album includes two completely different, live versions of one of her signature hits, “Move On Up A Little Higher.” A handful of the tracks are completely and gloriously a cappella. All but one of the tracks feature Jackson’s famed accompanist Mildred Falls on piano.
The album also includes the only known recording of Jackson with gospel legend Thomas A. Dorsey. The disc’s closer, titled “Getting Happy In Chicago,” was recorded live off the air during a 1940s radio broadcast.
Most of the album sounds pristine, belying the decades since the album was recorded. A few tracks reveal their jagged edges, but it’s a very small price you’ll be more than ready to pay.
So much of Moving On Up A Little Higher left me literally in tears. Listening to Jackson singing “I’m Going To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song,” I was moved to try a little harder to treat my brothers and sisters — of all colors — a little better. Later on the album, her “There’s Been A Great Change In Me” wraps Jackson’s testimony up in fine style.
Similarily, when Jackson sings just the chorus of another of her signature songs, “In The Upper Room,” during the Newport concert in 1957, you can almost see her kneeling in prayerful repose after just a few notes. As her voice shouts and swells to a bone-chilling crescendo, you’re transported to that room with her.
I’d hoped that there might be more unreleased Jackson treasures that Heilbut held back for a second release.
“It’ll have to depend on the response to this CD,” Heilbut shared. “I really did try to pick the best. There were a few songs from Newport that I did not use, like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Rusty Old Halo.” She did very good versions of “A City Called Heaven” and “Move On Up A Little Higher,” and she also sang the “Summertime” medley. I think there might be eight or nine [additional] songs that I considered.”
For the time being, gospel fans can rejoice in the brilliant new Moving On Up A Little Higher. Over forty years after Mahalia Jackson’s death, she’s still referred to as the undisputed World’s Greatest Gospel Singer. Pick up a copy of this thrilling new album and listen to…no, FEEL…a legend at her artistic and creative apex.
Moving On Up A Little Higher is available at amazon.com, digitally at iTunes.com, and streams at Apple Music.