Mable John, Motown Music Pioneer, Dead at 91

by Craig Garrett

Mable John, who became the first solo female artist signed by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, has died at the age of 91. Her nephew, Kevin John, told The Detroit News that she passed away at her Los Angeles home on August 25th. The cause of death has not yet been revealed to the public. “We loved her and she was a kind person,” Kevin John said of his music legend aunt.

The R&B singer had a varied career. Mable John was not only the first solo female artist signed to Motown (then Tamla), but she also recorded some popular songs for Stax Records. In addition, she was a singer in Ray Charles’ “Raelettes” backing band.

Mable John was born as the oldest of nine children on Nov. 3, 1930, in Bastrop, Louisiana. Around the early 1940s, her family left the South and migrated to Detroit. As a teenager, John landed a job with Friendship Mutual Insurance Company. The company was founded by Bertha Gordy – the mother of an aspiring music producer named Berry Gordy. Gordy eventually booked John’s professional musical debut at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit, where she sang alongside Billie Holiday in 1959. In 1958, John became the first solo female act to join Tamla Records, which was renamed Motown two years later.

During her time with the legendary music company, Mable John recorded a wide variety of blues songs. Some of the highlights include “Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That,” “Actions Speak Louder Than Words,” “No Love,” and “Looking for a Man.” She also recorded “Take Me” with background harmonies by The Temptations.

Mable John breaks away from Motown

Mable John left Motown in the mid-1960s to go to Stax Records in Memphis. It was there that she collaborated with Isaac Hayes and David Porter. This teaming resulted in her hit song “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” in 1966. The song was a hit and reached No. 6 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. It also went to No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Eventually, other famous singers such as Lou Rawls, Etta James, and Bonnie Raitt recorded their own versions of John’s hit song.

Following the release of a few singles on Stax, John left the label to work as a musical director and a vocalist for Ray Charles’ Raelettes. She remained there for a decade, recording dozens of songs with Charles.

After years in the music industry, John decided to leave and pursue ministry full-time. Mable John then went on to found Joy Community Outreach in Los Angeles, which provides food and clothing assistance for the homeless population. In 2007, she made her screen debut as a blues singer in Honeydripper directed by John Sayles. She was also featured in 20 Feet From Stardom, an academy award-winning documentary film.