Bach and Handel had the same eye doctor (who botched both their surgeries). Brahms went to a tavern called The Red Hedgehog every day. Debussy loved cats.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that the musicians we worship did not just compose, play, or sing. They were just like us. They had lives, they had other interests, and, in Mahalia Jackson’s case, they had fried chicken.
In 1968, Jackson, still at the height of her singing fame, started a fried chicken chain in Chicago, meant to be the black counterpart to country comedian Minnie Pearl’s own chain as well as a competitor to Colonel Sanders’s rapidly expanding Kentucky Fried Chicken. Though we now claim Jackson as part of our shared American musical heritage, the intended audience for this chain implies a more limited role for Gospel music in the 1960s. As an article in the African-American newspaper The Chicago Defender noted, the chain was “black-owned, managed and staffed and is hiring in the communities in which it operates.”
In this way, the chain was most definitely a product of the 1960s. In the midst of the Civil Rights Era, less than 15 years after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring segregation in public schools to be illegal, integration was still in progress. Black and white restaurants and neighborhoods, though not legally segregated, existed (and, in fact, still exist today).
In the end, even with her name, fame, and star power, the restaurant chain was a bust. Both Minnie Pearl’s and Mahalia Jackson’s stores went out of business within a few years. A final restaurant bearing her name (Mayo’s Fried Pies and Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken in Nashville) closed in 2008.
I don’t blame Richard Crawford for not including this story in our textbook, “American Musical Life.” There’s only so much you can include, and, however much I might like to say otherwise, knowledge of Mahalia Jackson’s Glori-Fried Chicken is not essential to understand Gospel music. But stories like this one put history in context and show the humanity and depth of musicians. They are people, just like us.
Go grab some fried chicken and enjoy a performance by the Queen of Gospel.
“2d Mahalia Jackson Chicken Shack Opens.” Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973), Oct 31, 1970. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493558307?accountid=351.
Miller, Adrian. Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press. 2013.
Why can’t we “like” comments on WordPress? I like your post, H. Way to connect to a larger current in American society.
Love your post, Phil! Going off of Prof Epstein’s link to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” I think this possible reference to Mahalia Jackson’s fried chicken joint has importance in the history of feminism in America. I was reading today in a book called Feminism Unfinished (Cobble, Gordon, and Henry) that “Respect” was actually the anthem of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s-70s. It is significant that we might be able to draw a link from this feminist anthem to Mahalia Jackson. The fact the she was able to open a restaurant by herself in 1968 was due in part to her fame as a gospel singer and in part to the advancements of the Women’s Movement. It might be cool to research the influence the Women’s Movement had on female gospel singers and vice-versa.
This is *exactly* why we look at primary sources. And there may actually be more of a musical connection to this story than you realize. Do you know the 1980 film “The Blues Brothers,” starring Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, and a host of important jazz, blues, and soul musicians? (An incomplete list includes Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and John Lee Hooker.) There’s a scene that takes place in Aretha Franklin’s fried chicken joint in Chicago in which Franklin sings her hit “Respect” to try to get her husband not to run away with the band. Could this be a hat tip to Mahalia Jackson’s fried chicken joint? Sounds like a journal article in the making . . . keep up the thoughtful (and well-researched) work, P!