Matters of the spirit were not among Studs Terkel’s higher priorities as a left-wing agnostic writer. Writing on Friday afternoon, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Dave Hoekstra noted that Terkel died in the same week that gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was born, and described their “spiritual connection”:
In 1945 Studs introduced the African-American gospel legend to a white audience. He was host of “The Wax Museum,” a Sunday night ABC network radio show that originated from the 19th floor of the Merchandise Mart.
“I’d do all kinds of crazy things,” Studs told me during a 2000 conversation in his home where a black and white photo of Jackson was taped to a wall in his kitchen. “I’d play an operatic aria. I’d follow that with Louis Armstrong and then Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads.” I’d pick out records at George Hoefer’s Concorde record shop on Randolph Street (Hoefer was a critic for Down Beat magazine). And I found this Apollo 78!”
Studs’ 88-year-old eyes lit up.
He loved to be on the pulpit in front of a fellow story catcher [. . .]
The fine record featured Jackson singing the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster’s “Move on Up A Little Higher,” which became her signature tune. Terkel smiled and said, “I heard this voice. Oh no, it wasn’t (opera contralto) Marian Anderson. It wasn’t Bessie Smith. It’s all of them!
“So I started to play all her records, ‘In the Upper Room,’ ‘Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.’ Bit by bit, she’s known. And she’d give me credit for white America knowing her. That’s how we got to be friends.”
This being a Studs Terkel anecdote, it also involves a reminder of strained race relations in the 1950s — and the heroic stand of one restaurateur:
During the early 1950s it was difficult to find a place downtown where Studs could have lunch with Jackson. “There was one restaurant,” he said. “Riccardo’s! (Riccardo’s Restaurant and Galley, now Phil Stefani’s, 437 N. Rush). They had a little sign that said, ‘All men of good will welcome.’ At the time Ric’s owner (Riccardo) landlord was P.K. Wrigley. Riccardo got a memo from Wrigley where he said he heard a ‘certain element’ was coming in and he didn’t like it. Riccardo wrote him back that whatever element it was would still be coming in. That’s why he put up that sign. That’s why I went there with Mahalia.”