Judge Victor Valdivia wants to sing songs about deep spiritual yearnings. Does "Baby Got Back" count?
"A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium."—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was arguably the most famous gospel singer of all time, but in many ways she was much more than that. Her 1947 hit "Move On Up A Little Higher" was an international smash, but as her career progressed, she would become more than just a singer—she became one of the faces of black America, one who got to go places that others were not allowed. She sang at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, she sang at Carnegie Hall, and she toured Europe, where she was greeted as a superstar. When the Civil Rights movement began, Jackson became one of its most public faces, performing at the 1963 March on Washington at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She started a scholarship fund for young black students and served as a symbol of hope and dignity during tumultuous times. Though she never sang secular music, her influence was enormous on fans of gospel, some of whom would later become respected singers in their own right such as Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison.
Though she left a sizable recorded catalogue, however, there hasn't been as much filmed footage of Jackson available. That's why A Gospel Calling: Mahalia Jackson Sings is such an important release. Compiling fifty-eight performances she recorded for television, this disc will serve as both an excellent introduction for newcomers and a must-have for fans. Here are the songs compiled on two discs:
The songs were shot live in a TV studio. Consequently, you shouldn't expect much in the way of visual fireworks. The camera is set up in front of Jackson, who sometimes sings alone, sometimes accompanied by a tiny band, in front of a sparse and primitive backdrop. She doesn't dance or pace but instead sings the songs respectfully and passionately. That doesn't mean, however, that you'll be bored. Jackson's voice is a remarkable instrument. Not only is her range enormous, she's also tasteful enough to know not to oversing, a quality that has only gotten rarer in the music industry. Her passion for these songs is clear in her emotional performances, but she also clearly enjoys herself during the more uptempo tunes. These are all gospel songs, so you know more or less what to expect, but even so you'll amazed at her versatility, from the soulful "Out of the Depths of My Soul I Fly" to the more upbeat "Give Me That Old Time Religion," each of which is a thrill to listen to. As definitive versions of many of these standards, these performances are hard to beat.
In compiling these performances, Infinity has done a decent job. The full-screen transfer definitely shows its age. The black-and-white footage is murky and sometimes scratched, but it isn't bad enough to overshadow the music. The image does come with a digital watermark, however, that's faint but still visible. The PCM mono mix is acceptably loud and well-balanced, although there are some pops and moments of hiss scattered about. There are no extras.
In any event, A Gospel Calling is an excellent introduction to Jackson's music. Some viewers might be put off by the murky black-and-white image quality or the fact that each segment includes the same opening and closing credits. While these aspects may detract from some viewers' enjoyment, they aren't enough to eclipse the beauty and power of Jackson's voice and emotion. Mahalia Jackson is such an important figure, not just in gospel but in popular music as well, that this set's historical importance outweighs its flaws. For anyone interested in studying the influence of gospel on classic R&B and rock & roll, A Gospel Calling is highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Infinity Entertainment
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