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This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the May 19, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Mahalia Jackson’s Guiding Light

It is one of her earliest memories. She was about 10 years old, and singing a solo for the first time at her small church in Newport News, Virginia. The little girl, Queen Esther Marrow, looked out at the congregation, and saw her grandmother crying.

She was bewildered. “I wondered what was wrong — I thought I was doing a pretty good job,” says the world-famous gospel singer, whose parents endowed her with the Biblical name she has carried all her life. “Later, I understood that somehow, my grandmother hadn’t expected me to move people so much,” she says, “or to sound the way I did.”

That sound elevated a little country girl and earned her a reputation as Europe’s “First Lady of Gospel.” Through June 6, Marrow stars in a world premiere musical produced by Passage Theatre that highlights her devotion and indebtedness to the late Mahalia Jackson. Its apt title: “In Mahalia’s Light.”

During a recent break from rehearsals, Marrow recalls how fate stepped into her life early and determined her destiny.

“I left Newport News and headed for New York City when I was young because I just had to get to where the excitement was,” says Marrow. After arriving in the big city, she landed a job in the fashion district working for designer David Crystal’s upscale fashion shows. “My job was to help accessorize the models’ outfits,” she says, “and I guess I was good at it because I love fashion.”

But what turned heads in the company was Marrow’s spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the company’s president at an office party. “When the boss heard me, he saw to it that I was introduced to the woman who became my first manager,” she says. “She had me stop working and start concentrating on my music, and for a year, that’s all I did.”

The payoff: an audition for the late Duke Ellington, who hired the young gospel singer on the spot for a San Francisco tour. “That was some phone call, that day when Mr. Ellington said he wanted me to sing with him. He gave me my first break, and I’ll never forget it.”

At the end of the San Francisco gig, Queen Esther Marrow was invited to continue touring with Duke Ellington and his band. She began to meet other artists, and to expand her repertoire. “I never stopped singing gospel, but my style definitely evolved and changed. Duke Ellington turned my life and my career around.”

In 1965, Queen Esther Marrow met her idol, Mahalia Jackson, and that, for her, was another life-altering event. “We both were involved in the civil rights movement, and at one point we performed together as part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s World Crusade. I revered Mahalia, and learned from her about giving yourself totally to a song, becoming one with it. Her influence was always in me, always guiding me, even though I wasn’t totally aware of it.”

Over the decades, Queen Esther Marrow has done everything from her ongoing gospel work with the Harlem Gospel Singers, the group she formed to celebrate the genre, to Broadway musicals, including “The Wiz.” She has performed for every recent U.S. president, and has sung three times for the pope. Marrow also has toured with Harry Belafonte, and has performed with Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, and many other music icons.

For the last decade, she has been touring in Europe extensively, drawing wildly enthusiastic crowds, who celebrate her spirit and her music.

But two years ago, this remarkable woman grew restless about completing a project that had been living in her for too long. She wanted to write and perform in a musical about the legacy Mahalia Jackson had left to her, and to acknowledge, at last, her debt to the great gospel singer, who died in 1972 at the age of 60.

And thus was “In Mahalia’ Light” born, with Marrow, and her current manager, Roseanne Kirk, as midwives. With a cast of five, the show traces Mahalia Jackson’s impact and inspiration on Marrow, and features classic Jackson songs like “Move On Up A Little Higher.”

“Even though we took somewhat different paths — even though Mahalia never strayed from gospel and I have — we both understood the power and majesty of music, and its ability to transcend barriers,” says Marrow. “I hope that sense comes out in the new show.”

When Marrow thinks of Mahalia Jackson, she remembers why she started singing in the first place. “Music is like having a conversation with God,” says Marrow, “and gospel music is so universal that even without common language, it’s understood. Mahalia taught that to the world, and I’m honored to have been in her light. She is with me on this journey, and always will be.”

— Sally Friedman

In Mahalia’s Light, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. 609-392-0766. $25. Through June 6.

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