WRITTEN BY BILL DAHL
Even before Berry Gordy launched his Motown empire, Mable John was one of his top protégés. She was his fledgling company’s first solo chanteuse when her 1960 Tamla label debut “Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That” invaded Detroit’s record shelves, even before a teenaged Mary Wells scored her first hit for Berry. More than a half century later, the diminutive dynamo is still going strong.
Born Nov. 3, 1930, in Bastrop, La., Mable John was the oldest of 10 kids in a highly musical family: Younger brother Little Willie John would become an R&B star of glowing magnitude; their sibling Mertis John would write several of Willie’s most memorable songs.
The Johns relocated to Cullendale, Ark., when Mable was 3 months old, then moved to Detroit when she was 12 after her father journeyed north to scout improved employment opportunities. “He found that in Detroit he could work at the automobile factory,” said John. “So he came to Detroit, and then he sent for the family later. And he started working for Dodge.”
“WE SANG IN CHURCHES”
“After being there a few years, my mother was already coaching us and teaching us how to sing, teaching us all kinds of drama, dialogs, poems, and all kinds of stuff. She did that at home as a hobby,” she continued. “She wasn’t getting us ready for anything in particular; just she was a mother. She played guitar, and she wanted us to sing and do what she did. She never did it professionally.”
The harmonious youngsters formed a family gospel group. “We sang in churches and for all kinds of musical programs,” said John. They sang material by “the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Stirrers, the Blind Boys — everybody that was singing and that was out there at that time.”
John first crossed paths with the matriarch of the Gordy clan while working for her Friendship Mutual Insurance Co. “I must have been 12 or 13. I wanted a job after school. She was an insurance company owner and was a writer of insurance,” recalled John, “so I asked her if I could have a job during the summer.”
“She had some things, some nuggets, that she dropped also in my heart that I’ll never forget. She said, ‘If you learn how to just sell, people will buy anything you’re offering. Don’t try and just learn to sell insurance. Learn the art of selling, and you can sell peanuts, you can sell insurance, you can sell chewing gum, you can sell anything. And you can sell a song.’”
Yet it wasn’t Mrs. Gordy who introduced John to her ambitious son. “By the time I got around to meeting Berry, someone else had made the introduction,” John said. “I had to go over to Berry’s house so we could rehearse. Berry and I were coming out of the door, and Mrs. Gordy was coming in. He said, ‘Hi, Mom!’ And I said, ‘Hi, Mrs. Gordy!’ She said, ‘Do you know my son?’ I said, ‘Is this your son?’ And he said, ‘Do you know her?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ It was kind of ironic. So I became like a member of the family.”
GORDY “WANTED YOU TO BE AN ARTIST”
Once Mable and Berry did join musical forces, the unknown young singer and the struggling songwriter hit it off beautifully. Gordy took a personal interest in shaping and sharpening John’s act. “I really got started with grooming in ’56,” she said. “And then I was groomed for a whole year before I did anything anywhere. Because that was Berry’s motto: to make you an act and not a gimmick. He wanted you to be an artist, not someone that had to have a record to be recognized or to perform to get a job.
“He was so good with me until I became crippled. I absolutely could not perform unless Berry was on stage playing piano for me, until one night with Billie Holiday. He decided to just stay away for the first show and not show up. And I had to go on without him being at the piano. And from then on, he never played piano for me again. He said that if I could only sing with him playing, that means that I wasn’t ready for the business.”
That shared 1957 bill at the Flame Show Bar with the iconic Holiday headlining was a turning point for John. “I was the opening act for the two weeks,” she said. “It was really a lesson for me. I adored her so much, and her singing. She taught me so much. She was able to instill some things in me in two weeks, in 40 years nobody has been able to take out. I rely on the things that she taught me in those 10 days today.”
Gordy had enlisted Maurice King, the Flame’s veteran bandleader, to help John polish her presentation. “Berry put me with him, for him to work with me on my singing and staging,” said John. “They did a lot of the training having me watch other women in the industry such as Dakota Staton and Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Della Reese. By the time it came time for me to be the opening act for Billie Holiday, they had given me all sides and all characters of all name women performers. Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker and all of the other ladies became my idols, because from each one of them I learned something. I learned how to handle myself on the stage. I learned how to handle the people while being on a stage, which is a real art in itself.”
By then, John’s astonishingly gifted younger brother, Little Willie John, was a national sensation. At age 17, he crashed the charts in 1955 with a jumping “All Around The World” for Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based King Records. The following year, the youth topped the R&B hit parade with “Fever.” Mertis John penned Willie’s anguished ’56 hit “Need Your Love So Bad.”
In a frigid Minneapolis in the dead of winter during the late ’50s, John shared a bill with the feisty Etta James. “Etta and I went up there for a week,” she recalled. “She was staying in the Sutherland Hotel in Chicago, and I lived there at that time. I was married to a minister that was living there. We went up and we shared the apartment. We played the Key Club in Minneapolis, and there was an apartment upstairs that was only for the artists that was playing the club. And that’s great, because if we had had to come from across the street, I would have froze to death!
“The first night we worked together, when we got back upstairs to our apartment, we would sit up the rest of the night and talk. ‘Mable, you are the biggest fool I have ever seen in my life,’ John recalled James saying. ‘If you sing like that, why aren’t you traveling, opening the show with your brother? I will never travel with him again. You get on the phone and call him and tell him that you want to travel with him!’ I said, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ She said, ‘I can!’ And she called him. We were all booked by Universal Attractions. Ben Bart owned that company at that time. She called Willie, and she just kind of cursed him out. Said, ‘How dare you have me on the road, opening and working with you?’”
“They’d work together, and they loved each other. She said, ‘I won’t travel with you again. Your sister needs to be with you.’ So he said, ‘She didn’t ask me! Sure, she can come with me.’ So that was the beginning of me working with my brother. I didn’t have a hit record. I didn’t have a contract. What did I have? Nothing! I didn’t even have the proper gowns that I should have had. But she said, ‘You have to work with your brother.’ And I didn’t see her too often after that time. Willie was very busy, and once we decided that we were going to travel together, we both became very comfortable with that.
“I met him in Port Arthur, Texas. He was there ahead of me, because he was coming out of Tennessee, or he had been in Florida and was coming to Texas. I was to join them in Port Arthur. Well, when I got there, we had the rehearsal. He went through all of my music. He told the Upsetters how to play all of my music. He told them where all the breaks was. He took my music, and he told me where and how I was to sing it,” she remembered. “Now, I’m the oldest; he’s the fifth child under me. I came off the rehearsal stage, and we walked off. He walked off with his arms around me.”
“He says, ‘Mable, you’re my sister, and I love you. And I’m so glad to have you with me. Now, my name is William Edward John to you. But to the public, I’m Little Willie John. I have a reputation of show stopping. I’m not bragging, but this is the way I’ve built it. And I want you to go on stage and kick it! Now if you’re not good, I’m sending you home!’ He would come onstage with me with my last number, and he and I would sing the last number together. Not because we had rehearsed it that way, but because he was going to end the show that way. Then I would always introduce him.
“Brook Benton and Dinah Washington were very popular together. We used to do ‘A Rockin’ Good Way’ and whatever that other song was, ‘Baby (You Got What It Takes).’ We would do those two songs together. One night, one show I might do ‘You Got What It Takes,’ and the next night I might do ‘Rockin’ Good Way.’ And we would always do it together. But he was the one that was calling the shots. He just completely bossed me as though I was his little girl. I enjoyed every minute of it, though. He was my little brother, bossing his sister.”
Mable and Willie performed together in April 1960 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. “They told me before I went, ‘If you’re not good, they’re going to throw eggs at you!’ I wasn’t afraid of their eggs. I was more afraid of Willie than I was their eggs. But I had six to nine months with Willie, working all the time, because Willie worked all the time. And I had six to nine months of being groomed and nurtured by him. So it was just another gig by the time I got to the Apollo.”
RUTH BROWN “GAVE ME A WHOLE WARDROBE”
R&B star Ruth Brown graciously outfitted Mable in glamorous attire. “She gave me the first stage gowns that I ever had. I was at the Apollo Theater the first time. She came to town. Willie and I were there. She carried me to her house, and I spent the night. She opened her closet. One room in her house was all closet, all of her stage clothes. She and I were the same size at that time. And she said, ‘Pick any gown that you like and try it on.’ So I picked out a couple of gowns. She said, ‘Oh, you like that one? That one looks good on you. You can have that one. Try this one on.’ I tried it on. ‘You can have that one.’ And she gave me a whole wardrobe. The next time I came, LaVern Baker did the same thing. So I had classy gowns right from the beginning.”
The chanteuse commenced her recording career nestled securely under Gordy’s protective wing. “He was managing the Miracles, and somehow I talked him into managing me,” said John. “When he was shopping for deals, he didn’t find a deal for me anywhere else. Smokey Robinson and I told him in New York at a BMI awards dinner, ‘If you will start your own record company, we’ll record for you.’ And I said to him, ‘If you do, I will stay with you forever.’
“He said, ‘Don’t ever promise anyone that. If I can’t give you what you’re really looking for and someone else can, it would be wrong for you to stay with me, knowing I can’t give it to you. We’ll always be friends. That’ll be forever. But you might not be with the company forever.’ And he didn’t even have a company at the time. Well, he started the company, and he signed me to Tamla.”
After debuting with the sleek hand-clapper “Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That,” written by producer Berry, his sister Gwen, and Roquel “Billy” Davis (the smoldering ballad “You Made A Fool Out Of Me,” supplied by the same trio, was its flip side), John encored in the spring of ‘61 with the wistful Gordy composition “No Love,” which he again produced. “That was a great song,” she said. “We did one version with strings. I think we did the strings in New York, and the regular instrumentation in Detroit.” Both versions came out on Tamla, each coupled with the Gordy-penned easy-swinging “Looking For A Man.”
Before year’s end, Mable tried again with “Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” a downbeat lament provided by the boss man and Davis (the soul ballad was also cut by David Ruffin for Check-Mate that same year). A male vocal group and thin keyboards provided haunting support for the blues-soaked flip “Take Me,” written and produced by Hitsville A&R ace Mickey Stevenson and Andre Williams.
Tamla released John’s “Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That” again in June of ‘63, but this was no reissue of an aging master tape: The precocious Little Stevie Wonder, then only 13 years old, decided he wanted to take a crack at producing John. “He listened to what Berry had done on me, and him being a very natural-born creative young man, said to Berry Gordy, ‘I’d like to produce that song over again on her,’” she said. “I might have been the first person he produced at the company. And to tell you the truth, as much as I love Berry and the song, I do like the way Stevie produced it on me. Because it had a young, poppish sound more than a soulful sound.” “Say You’ll Never Let Me Go,” a bluesy ballad penned and produced by Clarence Paul (“5” Royales guitar genius Lowman Pauling’s brother), adorned the B-side.
LEAVING MOTOWN: “I’M A BLUES SINGER”
After that promising remake failed to sell appreciably, John made the painful decision to break away from Motown. “I had gotten into the habit of being with Berry Gordy every day of my life,” she said. “I moved to Chicago and would fly to Detroit, and my mother and everybody was in Detroit. The first place I stopped was Berry Gordy’s house. I would call my mother to let her know I arrived, and she said, ‘Well, are you coming here at all before you go back?’ I’d say, ‘Oh, sure, sure!’ But I was with the Gordys. And that was all right with them, and it was all right with me. I know some of those times my mother wished that I would just come straight to the house. But that’s the way I am. Berry Gordy and I have had a relationship; we don’t have to say anything to each other. When we see each other, it’s like we’ve been together all the time.
“When I called Berry from Chicago and told him that I wanted a release, I just cried when I said it to him,” said John. “He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘The direction that the company is going into, I don’t think I can measure up, because I’m not a pop singer. I’m a blues singer. And I really need to be in a company that’s that kind of label, because I’m gonna get lost in the shuffle.’ He said, ‘Well, if that’s what you want, we’ll always be friends. Where do you plan to go?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. No one has asked for me, but I know I don’t need to be there and be a dead issue.’
“Berry knew me well enough to know that that was not a fight, it was not an argument. We were not angry. He actually sent me a bouquet of flowers and sent me a check and told me, ‘When you decide where you’re gonna go, let me know.’” Left behind in the Hitsville vaults were some fine tracks, notably John’s first crack at her signature number “Able Mable,” a swinging duet with Singin’ Sammy Ward (“I’m Yours, You’re Mine”), and several gems helmed by Stevenson and Williams (“Look At Me,” “More Lovin’,” “True Love [Can Be Found]”). They finally surfaced on a 2004 British CD, “My Name Is Mable: The Complete Collection.”
John’s next stop was Chicago. She snagged a front office job with the 4 Brothers and Bright Star labels, formed in 1965 and boasting an artist roster that included Junior Wells, Tyrone Davis, and Ricky Allen. Co-owner Willie Barney was having trouble generating funds, but John solved his quandary in short order. “For the first two weeks, all I was doing was establishing that ‘I’m here, and you’ll be getting an invoice,’” she said. “It took me two weeks to get all the invoices together and introduce myself to all of them. In the next two weeks, which was one month, at the end of the first week I told him how much money he had in the street. At the end of the next week, I’d invoiced the people. At the end of the next two weeks, he had about $15,000 or $20,000 that came in, that people paid but they had never been asked.”
Moonlighting as John’s manager, WVON deejay Lucky Cordell set up her next record contract. “Lucky Cordell was the person that found Stax for me, negotiated the deal, brought Al Bell in to sign me to the label,” said John. “I signed to the label without even going to Memphis in the offices (of Four Brothers), sitting behind the desk, looking to see where the Four Brothers money was.
“I had met Al Bell when he was in college and working at WVOL in Nashville, Tenn.,” she said. “I had gone to do an interview with him at the radio station, and I was working in a club in Nashville. He was very, very young.” Stax/Volt boasted much the same familial atmosphere that thrived at Motown. “I found that kind of friendship and bonding with Al Bell,” she said. “I got along with everybody there. They turned me over to Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and then to get with them was like old home week.
“I’d just sit and tell them a story. I told them the story of me and my first husband, and that’s how ‘Your Good Thing (Is About To End)’ came about. Just the three of us sitting at the piano. I told the story while Isaac Hayes played the piano under it, and David Porter was standing at the other side of the piano. He was writing and turning the words around to make them rhyme. That’s how that song was birthed, and that’s how most of the stuff that’s been successful of mine happened.”
With Booker T. & the MG’s and the Memphis Horns lending immaculate support, John threw herself into the smoldering “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)” and enjoyed her first national R&B hit — a major one at that — in the summer of 1966. “It was very easy to sing it because I had been waiting to tell my first husband off for years,” she said. “And do you know he died before he heard the song? He got killed. After then I said, ‘I will never hold anything that I need to say to anyone. Don’t hold it.’ I wanted to tell him how I felt about him, tell him about himself, because he had mistreated me.” Al Jackson Jr.’s hard backbeat powered its insistent B-side, “It’s Catching.”
Blues remained a primary ingredient in John’s saucy vocal attack. Her first Stax encore late that year, Hayes and Porter’s spine-chilling “You’re Taking Up Another Man’s Place,” came permeated in sparkling, uptown-style blues with a matching measure of downhome soul.
“I LIVE ON MY STAX MATERIAL TO THIS DAY”
“I would tell them stories, and we would just write,” said John. “Isaac Hayes and David Porter allowed me to be myself, to sing what I feel. David would go into the control-room booth with me. We did everything live. The band and everything was live at the same time, and he helped me with execution. Isaac, he knew what I was playing, so he could always play it. And another person was Booker T. They got into me. And Steve Cropper. They all came in to support what I was feeling. And I think they helped to bring the best out of me. And I had a lot of success there. I live on my Stax material to this day.” The opposite side of the single, “If You Give Up What You Got (You’ll See What You Lost),” was steaming Memphis soul provided by label mate Deanie Parker and Randle Catron.
Hayes and Porter had found a sweet spot in John’s delivery — slow, swaying blues/soul hybrids — and they created another one for John’s next Stax single in the spring of 1967, the exquisite “Same Time, Same Place.” The prolific duo was also responsible for the other side of the 45, a slinky “Bigger & Better.” Isaac and David stoked the simmering slow grooves on John’s summer ‘67 offering “I’m A Big Girl Now,” though label mate Eddie Floyd and producer/guitarist Steve Cropper contributed the storming flip, “Wait You Dog.”
That autumn Stax pressed up John’s “Left Over Love,” another elegant Hayes/Porter exploration of the intersection of blues and soul. The Cropper-produced flip “Don’t Hit Me No More,” a defiant response to spousal abuse, was given to John by soul star Joe Tex, though for publishing reasons was credited to Tex’s wife, Johnnie Mae Williams. “We were traveling together, and he wrote it in the back of the car as we were driving,” said John. “Taught it to me in the car, made a tape of it, and I took it to Memphis and they did the arrangement.”
For her first Stax single of 1968, John revisited her Motown-era original “Able Mable” with Cropper and Jackson calling the shots, the MGs granting it a bluesier strut with electrifying results. “It’s amazing,” she said. “We wrote it as a gimmick, and it became a trademark.” Hayes and Porter had the B-side with the splendid after-hours lament “Don’t Get Caught.” Jackson’s crackling stickwork was essential to John’s Stax output (and that of everyone else on the label). “He would look into right into my eyes, and whenever I moved, he had a beat for it,” she said. “It just relaxed me and settled me down, and I could find myself.”
John’s final Stax platter in late 1968 was something of a departure. Instead of relying on Stax’s in-house compositional staff, producer/lead guitarist Cropper chose “Running Out,” a gospel-tinged upbeat anthem by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Cropper teamed with staffer Homer Banks to craft the attractive mid-tempo flip side, “Shouldn’t I Love Him.”
As with her stint at Motown, goodies aplenty remained scattered around Stax’s archives upon Mable’s departure. They were conveniently unearthed on her 1993 CD “Stay Out of the Kitchen,” issued on Ace in the UK and Fantasy stateside. John and Deanie Parker penned some of the disc’s best moments, including “Love Tornado,” “Have Your Cake,” and “Catch That Man,” while Cropper and Banks collaborated on the title track. “I did a lot of writing with Deanie Parker. I’d go over there and spend the night with her. We’d stay up all night writing,” she said. “We’d make a story out of everything.” The disc also held John’s heartfelt revival of her brother Mertis’ “Need Your Love So Bad” and her own crunching “Ain’t Giving It Up.”
HITTING THE ROAD WITH RAY CHARLES
When your phone rang and Ray Charles was on the other end of the line, you stopped what you were doing and took his call. At least that’s what Mable John did in 1969. “He called me, told me he was looking for a lead singer for the Raelettes, and asked me if I could help him find somebody,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know anyone that could fit that bill.’ And he followed me down for six months. And finally I told him, ‘I can’t find anybody. I don’t want to recommend someone and they flop, and then you’ll blame me.’ He said, ‘No, I won’t.’”
“He said, ‘Oh, you’re not interested in the job?’ I said, ‘I never worked for anybody in my life. I never sang with a group.’ He said, ‘Well, wouldn’t you like to just sing with me and be with me?’ I said, ‘I couldn’t please you, not the way you sound. You’re the Genius!’ And he just kind of said a little nasty word. He said, ‘You can believe that if you want to, but I’d like to have you.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t think it would work.’ And it worked like your hand going into your glove.”
Many a talented chanteuse had passed through the Raelettes’ ranks, but precious few had the staying power of John. She stuck it out for a dozen years and took lead honors on two of their hits for Brother Ray’s Tangerine label in 1970: a delicious remake of Joe Tex’s smash “I Want To (Do Everything For You)” and the sanctified-sounding “Bad Water” (its authors included soul singer Jimmy Holiday and pop chanteuse Jackie DeShannon).
“Ray had had the tape in his desk for five years and hadn’t played it to anyone,” said John of “Bad Water.” “The day I walked into California and walked into his office, he pulled the tape out. He said, ‘Here’s a song you could really do.’ Jackie DeShannon was singing it. She and Dee Irwin had made the demo for Jimmy Holiday, and it was very successful for me.
“Ray Charles carried me to another level. Because he was blues, and he crossed over. And he would always say to me, ‘Now, John, if I can do this, you can do this.’ And he proved it, because when he’d do songs like ‘Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma,’ of course, I would do ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ that’s bluesy. And then when we did ‘America The Beautiful,’ and then when we would do ‘Ring Of Fire,’ and all of these things, and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ he showed me how. He said, ‘You don’t not be a soul singer. You just find the niche that’s yours, and you just lay in it.’ And Ray would tell me, as David Porter and Isaac Hayes would say, ‘Talk your songs. See, your diction is good. People can understand what you’re singing.’ People want to understand the words. They’re not in the habit of understanding the words, because people, they sing and you don’t know what they’re saying. Because they can understand you, that makes you unique.’
“Well, I said to Ray one day, ‘I don’t know if that’s good or bad.’ He said, ‘If you ever hear Mable, no one will ever forget your sound. So you have to be yourself.’ And because Ray Charles being the kind of singer and executor that he is in regards to what he’s singing, he showed me how to come from ‘Your Good Thing (Is About To End)’ and ‘Same Time, Same Place’ over to ‘Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma,’ and make the transition.”
“I WAS CALLED INTO THE MINISTRY”
As an indispensable Raelette, John toured the globe with Brother Ray’s mighty orchestra. On TV’s “The Johnny Cash Show,” she and her fellow Raelettes soulfully backed their boss on a steamy rendition of the Man in Black’s “Ring Of Fire.” But as the ‘70s drew to a close, a new message beckoned. “When I was called into the ministry, I heard that call standing onstage in Birmingham, Ala., onstage with Ray Charles,” said John.
“I heard this voice telling me to go home, that He had something else for me to do. And I just kind of turned and said to Susaye (Greene) on one side and Vernita (Moss) on the other side, ‘I just heard a voice telling me to go home!’ That was the ending of our show for the year. It was in December. Susaye turned to Vernita and said, ‘Mayberry is listening to voices! She heard a voice saying, “Go home,” and she doesn’t know we’re all going home.’ I said, ‘I’m going home home!’
“Started studying and went into the ministry. Graduated from the school of ministry, started to study the languages Hebrew and Greek, went into Israel to learn, to study the Bible in its original form in Hebrew and Greek, and received my doctorate degree. And I think I’ve held on to every friend that I have. And they all respect me.”
Today Dr. Mable John heads her own ministry in Los Angeles. Her Joy Community Outreach to End Homelessness program was launched in 1986 to feed and clothe the poor. She’s also a published author, writing three fictional books about a former R&B diva-turned-pastor with celebrated author David Ritz. She’s made moving gospel recordings that reflect that part of her life.
But John hasn’t abandoned her R&B roots by a long shot. In 1994 she received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. She teamed with Bettye LaVette, Laura Lee, and Sugar Pie DeSanto to dazzle the throng attending the 1997 St. Louis Blues Heritage Festival and joined Brother Ray at a ’98 Chicago Blues Festival reunion of his legendary band that featured sax greats David “Fathead” Newman, Hank Crawford, and Leroy “Hog” Cooper.
And Able Mable will be one of the stars at the 2015 Ponderosa Stomp. Surely the only singer in soul music history to have consecutively recorded for Motown, Stax, and Ray Charles, she occupies a very special niche in R&B history.