Mable John, blues singer who backed Ray Charles, dies

One of the first women signed by Motown. Part of the stable of early artists at legendary Stax Records. A longtime backup singer for Ray Charles. A tough advocate for those who lived on the streets of LA. A late in life film actress. A mystery writer whose protagonist was an aging blues singer with a penchant for unsolved crimes.

That Mable John was able to pack so much into 91 years of life was a remarkable testament to her energy, curiosity and generous heart. She shared the stage with Billie Holiday just as well as she waded through the crowds gathering for their annual Westchester “Homeless” Christmas party.

And eventually she got 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 into old age, John died on August 25 at her Los Angeles home. No reason was given. She was 91.

Mable John sings on stage.

Mable John, seen in an undated photo, has been signed by Motown as the label’s first female solo 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. When her father sought a better job, the family moved to Detroit, where she was encouraged by her musically inclined parents to sing in the family’s Pentecostal church, although she said she was later kicked out of the choir when the church objected to her Blues became interested in the church.

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

Her fortunes took a turn when she worked at an insurance company owned by the sister of Berry Gordy, then a young hustler trying to break into the music business by suggesting songs to local DJs and record store owners. Since Gordy neither drove nor owned a car, John became his chauffeur, taking him from radio station to radio station.

John said she encouraged him to start a label focused on black musicians. Interested, Gordy turned his garage into a recording studio and put up a large sign that read “Hitsville USA.” There’s no point in being humble, he said.

Within a few years, the company he named Tamla and later Motown was producing chart-busting songs: “Shop Around”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, “Where Did Our Love Go” . ?” and hundreds of other new tunes. One of his first signings was John, who had performed with Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. She became the label’s first solo artist.

Though initially overshadowed by her younger brother, Little Willie John, an R&B artist who topped the charts with his hit “Fever,” John found 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 decided that her soulful voice and interest in the blues didn’t sit well with Motown, which was leaning more toward pop music with mainstream appeal. So she went to Memphis and signed with Stax, where she had a Top 10 hit in 1966 with “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)”.

“When I went there I was assigned to Isaac Hayes and David Porter. They had never met me and didn’t know what I looked like or sounded like. … When I sat down with them, they said, ‘Let’s get to know each other first.’ They asked what kind of life I have, what’s on my mind. They paid attention to my feelings. Stax wanted you to be you.”

Two years later she toured with Ray Charles and took on the lead vocals for his backing trio, the Raelettes. It was a collaboration that lasted nearly a decade and a friendship that lasted until his death in 2004.

Spiritual since childhood, John eventually put aside secular music and went to LA where she taught Bible classes and started a ministry, Joy in Jesus Ministries. In 1992 she received her doctorate in theology from Crenshaw Christian Center. She also founded Joy Community Outreach, a charity that provides food and clothing to hundreds of impoverished 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 their group.

“A lot of these people are tough street people. You gave up life. Life on the streets, where they have to either steal or beg for everything they get, 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 being able to get into a bed.”

The Stax Museum marquee pays tribute to Mable John.

The Stax Museum marquee pays tribute to Mable John.

(Stax Museum)

Well over 70, John made her film debut in 1977 when director John Sayles cast her as an aging blues singer opposite Danny Glover in Honeydripper. She also co-wrote a series of thrillers with a spiritual detective named Pastor Albertina Merci, who solves crimes that have left the police perplexed.

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

When asked where she got the time and energy to pack so much into her life, John was succinct.

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

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

https://www.latimes.com/obituaries/story/2022-09-01/mabel-john-motown-and-stax-blues-singer-performed-with-ray-charles-dies Mable John, blues singer who backed Ray Charles, dies

Alley Einstein

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