TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of a new album by Mahalia Jackson called "Moving On Up A Little Higher." It contains 22 never-released tracks from the 1940s and '50s, when Jackson became the most famous gospel singer in the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S BEEN A GREAT CHANGE IN ME")
MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) And there's a great change in me, great change in me. I am so happy. I am so free 'cause Jesus brought me out of darkness into the marvelous light. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, the great change in me. There is a...
MILO MILES, BYLINE: In the '50s and early '60s, even music dabblers knew that Elvis Presley was rock 'n' roll, Ray Charles was soul and the Mahalia Jackson was gospel. The latter two were a particularly apt king and queen because Ray Charles infused gospel into rhythm and blues to produce soul and New Orleans native Mahalia Jackson brought enormous blues inflection and passion to gospel. She's a clear church music descendant of Bessie Smith.
Sadly, Jackson left this world behind in 1972 at only age 59. And by the time I began to listen to her seriously, about a decade later, both Jackson and gospel in general had faded almost off-stage in American music. She spent much of her career on Columbia Records. And certainly by the second half of her tenure there in the '60s, her voice, an expressive rapture, had diminished. It was possible to have the heretical thought was Jackson most famous because she championed Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights and was richly entertaining on TV?
The new "Moving On Up A Little Higher," produced and selected by gospel authority Anthony Heilbut, banishes that thought to the outer darkness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARK WAS THE NIGHT AND THE COLD GROUND")
JACKSON: (Singing) Dark was the night and cold the ground. Dark was the night and cold the ground on which the my savior...
MILES: This version of the venerable church tune was done at a rehearsal in Mahalia's home in Chicago in 1955 and preserved in archivist William Russell's jazz collection. This is more evidence that, as Heilbut has argued, the recording studio is not the most inspirational environment for Mahalia Jackson. Besides the rehearsals, "Moving On Up A Little Higher" includes radio and television broadcasts, concerts in a church and a high school and nine selections from Jackson's performance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, which sails above and beyond any Mahalia on stage I've heard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YOUR HAND ON THE PLOW ")
JACKSON: You know, I'm really a church singer. And I may have had this rock 'n' roll, but I've got to feel this thing. It got to get to be a part of me, you know. Hallelujah. Well, let's keep our hand on the plow. Thank you so much.
(Singing) Hold on, hold on, keep your hand on the plow, hold on. Hold on, oh, yes, hold on, oh, yes. Keep your hand on the plow, hold on. Mary had three lengths of chain, and every length was in my Jesus name. Keep your head on the plow, hold on. When I get to heaven, going to sing and shout, be nobody there to put me out. Keep your hand on the plow, hold on. Hold on...
MILES: As Mahalia says later in the show, she's pretty exposed on that stage without a band or a chorus humming behind her. She did have the advantage of the perfectly attuned piano accompaniment of Mildred Falls, part of the holy trinity of piano backers. The other's being Clarence Williams with Bessie Smith and Johnnie Johnson with Chuck Berry. As Heilbut notes, Falls was the only one who could cope with Jackson's slippery rhythms and cadence. The standout of the Newport show and maybe the whole collection is the unmatched rendition of "Move On Up A Little Higher" that reveals not only Jackson's irresistible power but also her oceanic tenderness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVE ON UP A LITTLE HIGHER")
JACKSON: (Singing) You know, I'm going out sightseeing in Beulah. I'm going to march all around God's altar. I'm going to walk, never get tired, Lord. I'm going to fly and never falter. I'm going to move on up a little higher. I'm going to meet old man Daniel. Then I'm going to move on up a little higher, yes. I'm going to meet Paul and Silas. I've got to move...
MILES: As the ruler of her music style, Jackson had one serious disadvantage over Elvis and Ray Charles. They recorded their best work for labels that kept the records available to new audiences. In the '40s, with her voice and spirit as pure as they would ever be, Jackson recorded extensively for Apollo Records, which has been out of business as long as Mahalia has been gone. The Apollo records are eternally tricky to find. But rejoice, "Moving On Up A Little Higher" is now the most varied and fundamental introduction ever for the queen of gospel.
GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed the new Mahalia Jackson album "Moving On Up A little higher."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be playwright Tarell McCraney and filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who grew up in the same housing project in Miami raised by mothers addicted to crack. Their new movie "Moonlight" draws on their stories. It's about a boy coming of age in that housing project, who's quiet and introverted and bullied by other boys who assume that he's gay. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.