John Mable obituary | Motown Records

In 1959, after serving as his driver and general assistant for three years, Mable John became the first singer signed by Berry Gordy Jr, the founder of Motown Records. “Berry couldn’t drive and he didn’t have a car,” she said. Although Gordy acted as a mentor, pianist and songwriter, they were never able to deliver the kind of success with which Mary Wells, Martha Reeves and Diana Ross, his other female signatures, would soon transform the Detroit-based label into a colossus of the music industry.

John, who died at the age of 91, had a voice that was too bluesy, too loud and direct, to suit the lighter, pop records that became, according to the label’s slogan, “the sound of young America”. Thus, released from her contract in 1966 without resentment on either side, she signed a contract with a competing label. At Stax Records in Memphis, she soon recorded the song that made her reputation.

When she arrived there, she was asked if she had brought any songs with her. No, she said. In Detroit, she had received equipment. In response, Stax’s top young songwriters, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, were sent to his room at the Lorraine Motel, along with a piano, to try and work on something. Your good thing (is about to end) happened when she started telling them about her cheating husband. As Hayes began sketching out a melodic line and chord changes, Porter sat down with a pencil and notepad, jotting down her words.

“I had no idea how the music or the melody should go,” she recalls. “I just knew it was a story that was inside of me.” The resulting blues ballad, a lucid depiction of intense emotional pain, was quickly recorded with the Stax musicians at their nearby studio in a converted cinema. Acclaimed as a deep soul classic, it has been widely covered by other artists.

Mable John, right, as lead <a class=singer of the Raelettes, the backing vocalists of Ray Charles, center, in 1972.” data-src=”https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/fb715febf671829b5f034ccb75d1b4ffa05729a7/15_0_3726_4652/master/3726.jpg?width=380&quality=85&fit=max&s=fe5239786ef4b1aa5dd68c5b80d577a0″ height=”4652″ width=”3726″ loading=”lazy” class=”dcr-4zleql”/>
Mable John, right, as lead singer of the Raelettes, the backing vocalists of Ray Charles, center, in 1972. Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

The Lorraine motel became her home when she was in Memphis, but two years later management asked her if, for the last night of her stay, she would mind moving down the hall. The Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr was arriving, and his room was his favorite. She complied happily, but upon arriving in Chicago the next day, she learned that he had been shot while standing on the balcony. Within hours, the United States would be in flames.

John was born in the small town of Bastrop, Louisiana to Mertis Sr and Lillie (née Robinson), the eldest of nine children in a music-filled family. His father worked in paper mills before joining the great migration to Detroit, where he found a job in an automobile factory. Mable was a student at Pershing High School when she met Bertha Gordy, Berry’s mother, who was selling insurance door-to-door. Ms Gordy became a friend of the family and helped Mable find after-school and weekend work in insurance until after school she spent two years at the Lewis Business College.

She was already the choir coach for her statewide Pentecostal church, but when she entered show business, hoping to follow in the footsteps of one of her brothers, who had rose to fame as Little Willie John with the million-selling hit. Fever in 1956, she was driven out. She had “gone to hell,” they told her. “I just found another church,” she said, though the pain of the eviction was deep.

Gordy did his best to turn John into a star, telling him to study singers such as Dakota Staton and Sarah Vaughan, and put her on the bill at the Flame Showbar in Detroit with Billie Holiday a few weeks before the the singer died in 1959. His wife, Raynoma, Motown’s first musical director, remembered her as “cute as a button, red-haired and full of freckles and without an ounce of ego”. It was on a road trip from Detroit to New York that she and Smokey Robinson, lead singer of Miracles, told Gordy that rather than keep trying to persuade other companies to release his records, he should create his own label.

Mable John stars with Arthur Lee Williams in the 2007 film Honeydripper, in which she plays a blues singer. Photography: Honeydripper/Kobal/Shutterstock

There were no hits for John with Gordy, and at Stax there won’t be any after Your Good Thing. In 1968, a month after King’s assassination, his brother Willie died in prison; he had been convicted of manslaughter. As Stax collapsed financially, at the end of the decade she joined Ray Charles as the leader of the Raelettes, her backing vocalists.

In 1977, as she said, “God told me to come home.” That home turned out to be Los Angeles, where she became the pastor of the Joy in Jesus ministry and started a charity, the Joy Community, to provide clothing and shelter to the homeless. Together with author David Ritz, she wrote and published a series of novels loosely based on her own story, and in 2007 she was cast by director John Sayles as the blues singer in his film Honeydripper.

“I never achieved stardom,” she told me during a visit to London to promote the film. “It’s not my personality. I’m not trying to compete with or eclipse anyone else. I just wanted to be a lady, and stay that way.

She was married and divorced four times and had four sons, of whom Jesse, Joel and Otis predeceased her. She is survived by her fourth son, Lemuel, and several grandchildren.

Mable John, singer, born November 3, 1930; died on August 25, 2022

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