Mable John, blues singer who supported Ray Charles, has died

One of the first women signed Motown. Part of the stable of early artists at legendary Stax Records. Longtime backup vocalist for Ray Charles. A staunch defender of those who lived on the streets of LA. A late movie actress. A mystery writer whose protagonist was an aging blues singer with a penchant for unsolved crimes.

That Mable John was able to accumulate so much in 91 years of life was a remarkable testament to his energy, curiosity and generous heart. She was as comfortable sharing the stage with Billie Holiday as she waded through the crowds that gathered for her annual ‘homeless’ Christmas party in Westchester.

And somewhere along the way, she earned a doctorate in theology and became a minister, her stage presence and booming voice serving her well from the pulpit.

Still active in the community until late in life, John died August 25 at her home in Los Angeles. No cause was given. She was 91 years old.

Mable John, shown performing in an undated photo, has been signed by Motown as the label’s first solo female artist.

(Courtesy of Bill Carpenter)

The eldest of 10 children, John was born in 1930 in Bastrop, Louisiana, a former Confederate stronghold west of the Mississippi River. As her father sought a better job, the family moved to Detroit, where her musically inclined parents encouraged her to sing in the family’s Pentecostal church, although she said she was later kicked out of the choir when the church objected to its interest in blues.

“They disapproved of the music. I had gone to hell. They told me that by going out into the world I was going back to everything I had been taught,” she told the Guardian in 2008. “So I just found another church.

Her fate turned when she went to work at an insurance company owned by the sister of Berry Gordy, then a young hustler who was trying to break into the music industry by pitching songs to local DJs and club owners. record stores. As Gordy neither drove nor owned a car, John became his driver, ferrying him from radio station to radio station.

John said she encouraged him to start a label that would focus on black musicians. Interested, Gordy turned his garage into a recording studio and hung a large sign that read “Hitsville USA”. No need to be modest, he said.

Within a few years, the company he called Tamla, then Motown, was producing hit songs: “Shop Around”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, “Where Did Our Love Go”. and hundreds of other new tracks. One of her first signings was John, who had played with Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. She became the label’s first solo female artist.

Although initially overshadowed by her younger brother, Little Willie John, an R&B artist who reached the top of the charts with his hit song “Fever”, John had modest success in 1960 recording several of Gordy’s songs, including “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That” and “Actions Speak Louder Than Words”.

John eventually concluded that his soulful voice and interest in the blues were unsuitable for Motown, which leaned toward pop music with mainstream appeal. So she headed to Memphis and signed with Stax, where she landed a Top 10 hit with “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” in 1966.

“When I went there, I was assigned to Isaac Hayes and David Porter. They had never met me and had no idea what I looked or looked like. … When I sat down with them, they said, “Let’s get to know each other first.” They asked me what kind of life I had, what I had in mind. They turned their attention to the emotion I was feeling. Stax wanted you to be you.

Two years later, she hit the road with Ray Charles and took over as the lead singer of his trio, the Raelettes. It was a collaboration that lasted almost a decade and a friendship that continued until his death in 2004.

Spiritual since childhood, John eventually put secular music aside and headed to Los Angeles, where she taught Bible classes and established a ministry, Joy in Jesus Ministries. In 1992, she received her doctorate in theology from the Crenshaw Christian Center. She also founded Joy Community Outreach, a charity that provides food and clothing to hundreds of destitute people and became known for its annual Christmas party for the homeless.

Actresses Sharon Stone, Whoopi Goldberg and the late Valerie Harper were among those who supported her group.

“A lot of these people are tough street people. They have given up on life. Living on the street, where whatever they get they either have to steal or beg, breaks them down. It takes away their pride and self-esteem,” she told The Times in 1996. “You’d be surprised what it does to a person, never to be able to lie down in bed.

The Stax Museum marquee pays homage to Mable John.

The Stax Museum marquee pays homage to Mable John.

(Stax Museum)

Well into her 70s, John made her film debut in 1977 when director John Sayles cast her as an aging blues singer alongside Danny Glover in “Honeydripper.” She also co-wrote a series of thrillers involving a witty detective named Pastor Albertina Merci who solves crimes that have puzzled the police.

In 2007, she appeared with Hayes, Lalah Hathaway and Angie Stone at the Hollywood Bowl for Stax’s 50th anniversary.

When asked where she found the time and energy to invest so much in her life, John was succinct.

“Some days when people tell me how busy I am, I sit down to think about it and get tired.”

John’s survivors include two sons, Limuel Taylor and Paul Collins; one daughter, Sherry Archar; one grandson and three great-granddaughters. She was predeceased by her husband, Samuel, and her three sons, Joel, Jesse and Otis. His brother Little Willie John died in prison in 1968 while serving time for manslaughter. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Los Angeles Times

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