Mabel John, one of the first female artists signed to Motown Records and a background singer with Ray Charles, has passed away, reports The New York Times. She was 91.
Keith John, her nephew and longtime backup singer with Stevie Wonder, confirmed that she passed away on August 25, 2022 at her home in Los Angeles.
Mabel John was born in 1930 in Bastrop, Louisiana to parents who taught her the love of music. As a child, she grew up singing at her family’s Pentecostal church but was forced to leave the choir when the church discovered she was interested in blues music.
“They disapproved of the music. I had gone over to the devil. They told me that by going out into the world, I was going back on everything I’d been taught,” she said in a 2008 interview with The Guardian. “So I just found another church.”
Years later, while working at an insurance company owned by the sister of Berry Gordy, John became his chauffeur, driving him to different radio stations and labels where he pitched his songs. John said that during these excursions she would have conversations with the budding music mogul who was well on his way to launching a music and entertainment empire. She would eventually sign on as a solo artist with Gordy's label.
Although she had some modest success with songs such as “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That” and “Actions Speak Louder Than Words," her blues-influenced sound never quite meshed with the more R&B, pop-oriented motif of the "Motown Sound."
After her tenure at Motown, John signed with Stax Records in Memphis, where she scored a hit single in 1966 with “Your Good Thing (Is About to End).” The ballad was later covered by Lou Rawls, Bonnie Raitt and others. At Stax, she worked with songwriters David Porter and his partner Isaac Hayes who encouraged her to be herself as an artist.
“When I went there, I was assigned to Isaac Hayes and David Porter. They’d never met me and didn’t know what I looked or sounded like. ...When I sat down with them, they said, ‘Let’s get acquainted first.’ They asked what kind of life I had, what was on my mind,” she recalled.”They turned their attention to whatever emotion I was feeling. Stax wanted you to be you.”
Eventually, she became a member of the Raelettes, Ray Charles’ backing vocal group.
In 1977, John made her film debut playing the role of an aging blues singer alongside Danny Glover in Honeydripper.
After retiring from the entertainment business, John became active in Christian ministry. She launched Joy in Jesus Ministries, where she taught Bible classes. In 1992, she earned a Doctorate in Divinity at the Crenshaw Christian Center and established Joy Community Outreach, a non-profit that provides food and advocates for the homeless.
John became a fixture around Los Angles for her work on behalf of underserved communities and was known for hosting an annual Christmas party for those without housing. She even counted Whoopi Goldberg as one of her biggest supporters.
John is survived by two sons, Limuel Taylor and Paul Collins, a daughter, Sherry Archar, a grandson, and three great-granddaughters. She was preceded in death by her husband, Samuel, and three sons, Joel, Jesse, Otis, and her brother William Edward "Little Willie" John, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
We at EBONY extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Mabel John.