Mable John, soul singer with a star-studded resume, dies at 91

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Mable John, soul singer with a star-studded resume, dies at 91
She was one of the first female acts signed to Motown, and her career later intersected with Isaac Hayes and Ray Charles. But she eventually heeded a higher calling.

by Alex Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Beyond her many other accomplishments — collaborating on a hit single with Isaac Hayes, singing backup for Ray Charles — Mable John earned a place in the music pantheon as one of the first female artists signed to the Motown Records empire, which altered the face of pop music in the 1960s.

But none of it might have happened if Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, had not needed a ride.

John was an aspiring blues singer working for a Detroit insurance company owned by Gordy’s mother, Bertha, in the 1950s when she found herself serving as the de facto chauffeur for the future music mogul, a former Lincoln-Mercury assembly line worker who had sky-high ambitions as a songwriter and music impresario and was hustling around town looking to conjure hits.

It did not take long for him to recognize the vocal power of the woman behind the wheel. Before long, with Gordy serving as her pianist and mentor, John joined the Detroit nightclub circuit.

“I was groomed for a full year before I did anything anywhere,” she later said, “because that was Berry’s motto — he wanted to make you an act, not a gimmick.”

As a pioneering Motown act, John never churned out hits like those of Stevie Wonder, the Supremes or other stars of the Motown roster. But her influence on music was soon felt.

With a voice that could reach breathy depths and then soar to the upper registers, John moved on to Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, known for an earthier kind of R&B, where she scored a hit single in 1966 with “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” a wistful ballad of heartache that was later covered by Lou Rawls, Bonnie Raitt and others. She eventually spent more than a decade as a member of the Raelettes, Charles’ backing vocal group.

John died Aug. 25 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 91. Her death was confirmed by her nephew Keith John, a longtime backup singer with Wonder.

“She was definitely R&B royalty,” said author David Ritz, who has written biographies of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and others, and who collaborated with John on a series of semi-autobiographical novels centered on an R&B singer turned minister.

In broad terms, John’s musical odyssey might be seen as a metaphor for the Great Migration of Black Americans who fled the South in the middle decades of the 20th century, looking for opportunity in the North. She was born in Bastrop, Louisiana, on Nov. 3, 1930, the eldest of 10 children of Mertis and Lillie (Robinson) John, who moved the family to Cullendale, Arkansas, shortly after her birth. When she was 12, her father left a grueling job at a paper mill and moved the family to Detroit in search of a better life. He found work in an automobile factory.

With its swelling Black population, Detroit was a hotbed of African American music, and it became an ideal place for people to pursue their musical ambitions. Lillie John led a family gospel group, and by the mid-’50s Mable John’s younger brother William had found fame as a singer under the name Little Willie John, scoring multiple R&B hits with songs like “All Around the World,” “Need Your Love So Bad” and “Fever,” which hit No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1956 and later became an enduring anthem of desire for Peggy Lee.

With her sights on a music career of her own, John was soon singing, in a voice both sassy and vulnerable, at hallowed Detroit clubs like the Flame Show Bar, where she opened for Billie Holiday shortly before her death in 1959.

Her career ambitions, and her decision to tour with her famous brother, got her booted from a statewide Pentecostal choir. “They disapproved of the music,” she said in a 2008 interview with The Guardian. “I had gone over to the devil.”

But she was on her way. In 1959, Gordy formed his landscape-altering sister labels, Tamla and Motown, and he soon signed John, who recorded “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That,” written by Gordy and others, in 1960.

A handful of singles over the next few years failed to make a splash. By 1966, John was living in Chicago and married to a preacher, and she told Gordy that she wanted to be released from the label. In a 1999 interview with the magazine Living Blues, she recalled telling him: “The direction the company is going into, I don’t think I can measure up, because I’m not a pop singer. I’m a blues singer.”

Her career, however, was far from over. She moved on to Stax, Motown’s bluesier rival, which proved more amenable to her musical vision.

“At Motown, they gave you your songs and told you how to dress and how to dance,” Tim Sampson, the communications director of the Soulsville Foundation, which operates the Stax Museum in Memphis, said in an interview. “At Stax, they just brought you in and said: ‘Tell us your story. What makes you happy? What makes you sad? That’s what your music is going to be.’”

Before long, John found herself meeting with two of the label’s top songwriters, David Porter and a not-yet-famous Hayes. In search of a song to record, she told them about an early marriage to an unfaithful man. As she spoke, Hayes began to play the piano, and Porter began to scribble lyrics.

“I had no idea how the music or the melody should go,” she told The Guardian. “I just knew it was a story that was inside of me. It was a pain, and it needed to get out. And when we got finished that night, we had ‘Your Good Thing (Is About to End).’”

The song reached No. 6 on the Billboard R&B chart, but her tenure with Stax was brief. In 1969, she joined Charles as a backing vocalist.

Living up to Charles’ exacting musical standards was an accomplishment in its own right, Ritz said: “He was an uncompromising taskmaster in terms of musical excellence. You played the wrong stuff and you were out.” John, who had a strong moral sense and whose nickname was Able Mable, he added, also did her best to steer the band away from the temptations of the road.

For John, her years with Charles were an opportunity to expand her musical horizons.

“At the beginning, I thought I could only sing gospel,” she said in a 2007 interview with NPR. “With Berry Gordy, I found out I could sing the blues. I went to Stax, and I find out I could sing love songs. I got with Ray Charles, and we sang country — everything. And we could play to any audience. I wanted to sing what was in my heart to everybody that loves music, and Ray Charles was the place for me to be, to do that.”

John’s survivors also include a son, Limuel Taylor; a brother, Mertis John Jr.; and several grandchildren.

She continued to perform off and on over the years. She also wrote three novels with Ritz: “Sanctified Blues” (2006), “Stay Out of the Kitchen” (2007) and “Love Tornado” (2008). And she dabbled in acting, portraying a seasoned blues singer in John Sayles’ 2007 film, “Honeydripper.”

But John also felt a higher calling. She followed the stage-to-the-pulpit path taken by the likes of Little Richard and Al Green, and founded a small Baptist ministry in Los Angeles that organized food and clothing drives for the homeless.

In a sense, she might have been heeding the wisdom that she recalled Holiday imparting to her long ago: “Baby, if you intend to make it in this business, there is one thing you’re going to have to remember. You’re going to have to know when you’ve given enough, and then you have to stop.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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