Mable John, pioneering Motown singer, dies at 91

Mable John, a soul and blues singer who became one of the first female artists to be signed to the Detroit-turned-Motown label and who later served as the lead singer of Ray Charles’ vocal group, the Raelettes, died on August 25 at her Los Angeles home. She was 91 years old.

His nephew Kevin John confirmed the death, but he did not give a cause.

Many rock historians say Mrs. John, with a sultry and intense delivery, was unfairly overshadowed by her younger brother Little Willie John, whose recording career in the mid-1950s predated his by a few years. The two siblings, raised in Detroit, began singing in a family gospel band led by their mother, Lillie, who played guitar.

She told the Guardian she was kicked out of her role as a statewide choir coach for her Pentecostal church when she started traveling with her brother, who had early hits with songs such as “Fever” and “Talk To Me, Talk To Me”. “They frowned on the music,” she said. “I had gone to the Devil. They told me that by going out into the world I came back to everything I had been taught. … So I just found another church.”

She gave various accounts of how she met Berry Gordy Jr., the Ford assembly line worker and fledgling songwriter who would launch the Tamla label in 1959 and Motown in 1960. But at As his interest in secular music deepened, the future record-corporate mogul apparently saw possibilities in his talent. Gordy helped shape his sound and stage presence by taking him to see jazz singers he admired, including Dakota Staton and Dinah Washington.

At her gigs, Gordy often accompanied her on the piano, and he secured her a top spot for Billie Holiday at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit shortly before the famous but troubled jazz singer died in 1959.

“I was convinced that if Berry Gordy didn’t play the piano for me, I couldn’t sing,” she told the Detroit News in 2007. Gordy was absent the night she was scheduled to appear on stage before Holiday. “He did it on purpose. It was my start and my foundation, because he taught me to do everything you do and not depend on anyone else.”

In return for her mentorship, Ms. John played a supportive role in helping her start her business: she borrowed her boyfriend’s car to transport Gordy, who could not drive and did not own a car, to meetings with disc jockeys and a record store. owners.

Ms. John recorded her first records for Gordy in 1960, with her songs “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That” and “Actions Speak Louder Than Words”. But her stint in Tamla and Motown was short-lived, as she explained, as Gordy deemed her style too blues-oriented to achieve crossover success with white audiences, which was her goal. Gordy began to focus his attention on much younger pop artists such as Diana Ross, the Marvelettes, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

“Motown was getting so pop, and I knew I wasn’t pop, but the writers were writing for success,” she told the Detroit News. “Berry was so busy with the business, and I found myself without a writer to focus on me the way Berry had focused on me.”

In the mid-1960s, Ms. John signed with Stax Records of Memphis and established an artistic relationship with songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter. The three were talking about her life and her troubled marriage – conversations, often accompanied by Hayes noodles on the piano, which gave them song ideas.

After recounting how she caught one of her husbands in bed with another woman, the two blacksmiths wrote a song that became her signature, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)”. The composition, a bluesy ode in which she dramatically recounts her lover with bitterness but without remorse, reached number six on Billboard’s rhythm and blues charts.

Ms. John’s time at Stax was brief but memorable. She would often open her shows with the sassy “Able Mable” – “My name is Mable / And don’t you think I can’t / I can take a complication / Make it a simple situation.” Then, in 1969, she gave up her solo career to hit the road with Charles, as the lead singer of his back-up trio, the Raelettes (sometimes spelled Raeletts).

Ray Charles, performer with a singular mix of styles, dies at 73

“Remember now, at first I thought I could only sing gospel,” Ms. John told NPR. “With Berry Gordy I found I could sing the blues. I went to Stax and found I could sing love songs. I met Ray Charles and we sang country – everything. And we could play in front of any audience. I wanted to sing what was in my heart to everyone who loves music, and Ray Charles was the place I needed to be, to do that.

Mable John, the eldest of 10 siblings, was born in Bastrop, Louisiana on November 3, 1930. The family moved to Arkansas before settling in Detroit, where her father worked in an automobile factory.

Ms John was reportedly married four times and had children, but a full list of survivors was not immediately available. Little Willie John died in prison in 1968 while serving a sentence for manslaughter.

At the end of the 1970s, she left the Raelettes and became a preacher with Joy in Jesus Ministries in Los Angeles. She also started a charity, Joy Community Outreach to End Homelessness, which fed and clothed up to 150 people a day.

Ms. John played a blues singer in director John Sayles’ 2007 film, ‘Honeydripper’, and she appeared in ’20 Feet From Stardom’ (2013), a documentary about backup singers. She has also collaborated with author David Ritz on several novels about a fictional gospel singer, Albertina Merci, beginning with their 2006 book, “Sanctified Blues.” She produced and released her own gospel records and occasionally revisited her old material at Stax and Motown blues and reunion festivals.

The Rhythm and Blues Foundation honored Ms. John as a pioneer performer in 1994.

“I get up every morning and thank God for the activity of this day,” Ms. John told NPR in 2007. “And I have to thank a woman who is no longer with us, Mrs. Billie Holiday, because that is the voice I still hear in my ear to this day. I worked with her two weeks before her death. And she said to me, honey – because I was scared – you can do it if you remember, always know when you’ve done or given enough. Not being afraid and having enough courage to say: “I quit. » »

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