Engaging biography of the great gospel singer who was the first to cross over to a large white audience. Schwerin was an independent filmmaker when, in 1955, he was dazzled by heating Mahalia Jackson and determined to do a documentary on her. He managed to befriend the notoriously headstrong singer, and she drove him around New Orleans in her lavender Cadillac showing him the scenes of her girlhood. Jackson, Schwerin tells us, was born in a shotgun shack in ""back'a town,"" which spread along railroad tracks, the levee, and the Mississippi. As a child, she worked with her aunt for a white family, and by eighth grade was also putting in five hours a day as a laundress. Sundays, she sang in the Mount Moriah Baptist Church, whose congregation would often walk to the levee singing ""Let's Go Down to the River Jordan."" Determined to seek her fortune, the aspiring singer moved to Chicago, where her career was launched when Studs Terkel invited her to sing on his radio show. Jackson's childhood poverty caused her to accept only cash--she often left a concert with $5,000 pinned inside her brassiere--but it also seemed to affect her character adversely: She was so tightfisted, Schwerin says, that she fired her longtime accompanist, Mildred Fall, who asked for a raise to $300 a week at a time when Jackson was earning up to $7,000 a night. Schwerin provides a well-told background of the years of the civil-rights struggle and of Jackson's passionate involvement, which found its apogee at the second March on Washington, where she sang her signature ""I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned"" right before Martin Luther King delivered his famous ""I Have a Dream"" speech. A fine biography, and a valuable contribution to the too-sparse literature on gospel music.