Mable John, Motown's first solo female artist signed by Berry Gordy, has died at 91

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

She sounded too sultry and adult for Motown, where she was the first solo female artist Berry Gordy signed, but Mable John fit in just fine at Stax Records in Memphis, where she parlayed her world-weary sound into a hit with Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” in 1966.

Mable John, the eldest of Detroit’s musical John family, died Thursday in Los Angeles, according to her nephew Kevin John. She was 91. “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.

Mable John

In recent years Mable appeared as blues singer Bertha Mae in “Honeydripper” (2007), as well as the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” (2013), in which she discussed her years as Ray Charles’ head Raelette.

But for years, she was best known as the older sister of R&B legend Little Willie John, whose stardom predated hers.

Mable was born Nov. 3, 1930, in Bastrop, Louisiana, to Mertis and Lillie John. The Johns moved to Arkansas and then, in 1941, to Detroit, where they sought a foothold in the booming wartime city.

By the mid ‘40s Mertis and Lillie had a family of nine children; three sisters and six brothers, living in a housing project at Six Mile and Dequindre. Those brothers included William Edward John, who as Little Willie John, started touring as one of the top R&B attractions of the day as a teenager, in the mid-‘50s. Willie took big sister Mable on the road, where she opened the show for him. (Willie John died in 1968).

Mable was already working for a Gordy — Bertha, Berry’s industrious mother — at her Friendship Mutual Insurance Co. in Detroit. Bertha told Mable about her son Berry, the aspiring music producer, and urged her to look him up.

Soon Mable was driving Gordy around town to appointments. In return, he coached her as a singer, taking her to see the top divas of the day when they played Detroit. Those stars included Dakota Staton, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan — and Billie Holiday.

Little Willie John, left, and Mable John pose with a man, unknown, in this photo.

Gordy told Mable to study Dakota Staton, especially. As she told me in 1994, for my book “Women of Motown”: “He said, ‘I want you to watch how she walks onstage. I want you to watch how she backs away from the mic at the end of her song. I want you to watch how she takes a bow, I want you to watch how she uses her hands. You watch her, because she’s very classy.’”

John absorbed those lessons avidly, and well into her ‘80s enjoyed her image as a glamorous, fur-clad diva with a smooth onstage delivery.

 “(Berry) started out as a writer and a coach for new artists,” Mable said. “He would coach us, he would play piano for us… He played for years until he just decided that he was a crutch for me… The last time he played for me was the last show Billie Holiday did in Detroit (in 1959, at the Flame Showbar), just two or three weeks before she passed away. He put me on that show with her.”

Mable spoke at length with Holiday between shows, and was warned to stay away from narcotics by the fading star. “She let me know, that was a route that I should take a detour from. And she would say things like, ‘You have to know when you’ve done enough of anything, and you have to have guts enough to stop, on your own.’”

Mable had already been working for Gordy as an assistant for several years, and recorded for him, but her first release on Tamla was “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That” in 1960.

By 1966, she was signed to Stax in Memphis.

“Motown was just turning so pop, and I knew I wasn’t pop, but the writers were writing for success…Berry was so busy with the business, and I found myself without a writer to concentrate on me as Berry had concentrated on me.”

Despite her departure, she and Gordy remained good friends. “We would always be family,” Mable said of Gordy, and Motown.

John’s life wasn’t always easy, but it made good fodder for blues songs. Her Hayes-Porter penned hit “Your Good Thing” came about after the songwriters heard her talking about her then-husband, whom she’d caught fooling around with one of her cousins.

In 1968 her brother Little Willie John died tragically while imprisoned in Washington state. Mable returned to Detroit to support the family and help organize his funeral and a memorial concert. Her nephews, Willie’s sons Kevin and Keith John, later became recording artists as well (Keith still sings backup for Stevie Wonder).

In 1969 Mable went on the road with Ray Charles, as the lead Raelette. She toured for years with him, until she quit one day in 1977, when she says “God told me to go home!” The mother of four did, and became a practicing minister and pastor of her own church in Los Angeles. Her mission with her charity Joy Community Outreach to End Homelessness was feeding and clothing the homeless.

Mable also collaborated with David Ritz on a series of novels about a gospel singer, including “Sanctified Blues.”

Detroit air personality David Washington said: “Mable was one of the great unsung females in the music industry. She had a lot to give. And she’s the one who brought me into the John family.” Washington will play parts of a four-hour interview he did with Mable in 2003, on his radio show “20 Grand Revue” Monday on WPON at 1:30 p.m.

Mable John was married four times, and had four sons: Jesse, Joel, Otis and Lemuel. Lemuel survives her, as well as a number of grandchildren. Memorial information is pending.

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