Between the renditions of “Blessed Assurance” at the beginning of the memorial services for Helen Cash Jackson by trumpeter Joey Morant and the collective voices of the audience of the great spiritual toward the end, Jackson’s remarkable life was vividly recalled by a number of notable entertainers and community leaders last Wednesday at Benta’s Funeral Home in Harlem.
“She understood and cared for us,” Woodie King Jr., the legendary theater director and producer, said of Jackson, who joined the ancestors on May 27 after a long battle with cancer. King interwove lyrics from “Any Day Now,” the song popularized by her husband, Chuck Jackson, into his speech to summarize her importance to the arts community and said how her passing has left gold and “blue shadows all over town.”
Barbara Ho, who worked with Jackson for more than 30 years, recounted her tremendous contribution to the arts. “She was a dynamic woman … beautiful and very smart,” she said.
“I am blessed to have had the opportunity to work with her,” said Linda Earle of the New York State Council of the Arts (NYSCA). “She advised me in my professional, personal and spiritual life.”
Jonelle Procope, CEO and president of the Apollo Theater Foundation, began her remarks by thanking Chuck Jackson for taking her under his wing as she began her leadership at the Apollo. “But his greatest gift to me was Helen,” she said. “There was a strength about her, and as the great Duke Ellington used to say, ‘I love you madly, Helen!’”
Deputy Director of the NYSCA Al Berr was at NYSCA when Jackson arrived there in 1974. “She valued her profession,” he said, “and she will never be forgotten, and her contributions are woven into the fabric of the Council.” Several speakers would reiterate and expand Berr’s comment about Jackson’s astute and “advanced sense of fashion.”
Arts maven Voza Rivers, who emceed the services, read a letter from Rep. Charles Rangel and his wife, Alma, expressing their heartfelt sympathies and noting how inseparable the Jacksons had been over their years together.
In an earlier interview with the Amsterdam News, Chuck Jackson remembered the circumstances under which he met Helen. “At first it didn’t click for us, but 20 years later, it did, and we were never apart anymore,” he said. “And once we were together, I never took another performance date without her.”
Rhythm and blues legend Lloyd Price told the packed parlor that Chuck and Helen Jackson were the greatest couple he’d ever seen. “He’s my hero because I’ve been married three times,” he said to a burst of laughter. “Tell me how you did it?”
“Helen was an incredible woman in every sense of the word,” remembered singer Dionne Warwick. “She conquered our hearts and our minds.”
Smokey Robinson exuded similar sentiments. “She was awesome,” he began. “We talked about spiritual love all the time, and I know she’s OK now.”
When vocalist and composer Valerie Simpson was handed the microphone, she sang “Walk Around Heaven All Day,” but toward the end of her powerful performance, she added that Jackson’s walk in that celestial place would be done in “high heel shoes.”
“Helen was always fashionably attired in a style all her own,” Harlem leader Lloyd Williams said, reading the obituary. “The arts community across the state of New York honors her transition as she joins with her parents; brother, John Anthony; and sister, renowned actress Rosalind Cash, taking her place among the ancestors who have affirmed themselves and who created a vibrant and distinctive arts and culture community.”
Gregory Mills, CEO and president of the Museum of African American Cinema, among a coterie of benefactors from Jackson’s encouragement and counseling, offered his gratitude after he and his drummer led the audience in a ceremonial chant to her greatness.
“What Greg had to say about Helen’s commitment and contribution to the community I echo,” said Assemblyman Keith Wright. “She touched us all in a very special way.”
Music director and bandleader Ray Chew anticipated the remarks that followed from members of the Cash-Jackson family, including her brother, Robert; her nephew, Robert John; and her niece, Leah Cash, who spoke at length about how much her aunt inspired her.
In his eulogy and then his benediction, Deacon Rodney Beckford of the St. Charles Borromeo Church in Harlem said, “Those who hold up our culture, hold up our race,” and this was certainly something Jackson did with style and grace. “Be assured, she’s in God’s hands,” he concluded.
Helen Jackson is survived by her husband, Chuck; brother, Robert; nephew, Robert John; nieces Leah Cash, Kenya Cash, Martha Cash, Melina Benihoff and Roberta Benihoff; and a host of friends, colleagues and clients whose lives she touched.