R&B singer Mable John has died at the age of 91. The iconic vocalist was celebrated for her work with Berry Gordy’s Tamla Records, where she was the first female artist on the label.
John’s passing was confirmed by her nephew Kevin John. “We loved her and she was a kind person,” said Kevin of his aunt, who in recent years fed the homeless via her Los Angeles charity.
John was born on November 3, 1930 in Bastrop, Louisiana. As the eldest of ten children, John got her introduction to singing by joining her siblings in a variety of performances, “putting on programs and singing traditional Gospel tunes while her mother played the guitar,” according to Stax’s official website.
“My songwriting started as a girl. I would be sitting in church, and I could hear a title in something the minister said,” Mable said about her songwriting origins. “At that point, I would tune him out and compose the whole song. I wrote books and books of songs. I was a very young girl, and I got to the place where the choir in the church was singing my song.”
John and her family moved to Arkansas, where her brother, the legendary singer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, William ‘Little Willie’ John was born. The family later moved to Detroit, Michigan. Inspired by her brother’s success in the music industry, John started substituting for R&B singer Etta James as the opening act for ‘Little Willie’ John’s show when he came to town. In 1956, she worked as a secretary at the Friendship Mutual Insurance Company where her supervisor was Bertha Gordy, mother of the Motown music founder Berry Gordy.”
John also points to Billie Holiday as a major influence. “Billie and I worked together on the same bill in 1957, and she was quite an influence on me; I was a baby,” she says. “That was the beginning of my career, and Billie spent a lot of time talking to me.”
That connection led to John’s record deal. In 1958, she became the first female artist on Gordy’s new label Tamla. Although her first song, “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That,” did not make the pop charts, it turned John into a popular live performer. She sold out shows at the famed Apollo Theater in New York City and The Howard Theater in Washington, D.C.
Motown’s regimented training helped John refine her skills, she told The Los Angeles Reader in 1994 how Gordy helped her grow as a performer.
“[Motown] was a family feeling, with Berry and all of his family. He was my beginning, and I had to learn that I could do it without him. When I played the Flame with Billie, Berry played piano for me. He had always groomed me — taught me the songs, and played piano for me, so I couldn’t really relax with another pianist. One night he came too late to play, and [music director] Maurice King had his regular pianist play for me. I thought I’d die. Berry wrote my songs, played them for me, taught them to me, and conducted the orchestra; that’s what I was used to. When he finally came to the club, boy, did I jump on him. He calmly said to me, “If you cannot perform when I’m not here to play for you, you’re in the wrong business.”
In 1963, John left Motown Records and was running a record company for someone else — Four Brothers and Bright Star. At that time, she reconnected with her friend Al Bell, who she knew from his disc jockey days at WVOL in Memphis, and was now the president of Stax Records. Bell convinced John to sign to his label in 1965, where he believed her sound would fit in with other artists.
John’s first song under the Stax label, “Your Good This (Is About to End)” reached No.6 on the R&B charts in the summer of 1966. “I enjoyed the song,” Mable shared about the track in the book, Soulsville U.S.A: The Story of Stax Records. “I enjoyed the relief it gave me because I was in bondage. I really felt that my first husband had given me a raw deal and I was carrying around a lot of bitterness that no one knew about. That song relieved that bitterness to a degree. It was like getting something off my chest.”
The following year, she released the single “Same Time, Same Place.” Shortly after, tragedy struck. In 1968, John’s brother, William “Little Willie” John, died in prison from unknown causes. The awful death sent John went into a deep depression, which halted her music career for two years. She re-emerged when Ray Charles offered her a job as the musical director of the Raelettes, that John continued her work in the music business. She co-wrote 52 songs with Charles.
John earned her doctorate in divinity from the Crenshaw Christian Center in 1993 and, in 1994, she was awarded the Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. The ordained minister administered her own food-for-the-poor program as she retired from the spotlight. She also oversaw her Meda Records label, for which she wrote, recorded, and marketed her own music, and that of a small roster of Christian artists.
More recently, John appeared as blues singer Bertha Mae in the film Honeydripper in 2007, as well as the hit documentary 20 Feet from Stardom in 2013, in which she discussed her years as Ray Charles’ head Raelette.
Along with her musical contributions, she also co-wrote three spiritual novels with David Ritz: Sanctified Blues, Stay Out of the Kitchen, and Love Tornado.