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Mable John, Motown Records’ First Female Solo Artist, Dies at 91

Mable John
Mable John, the first female solo artist to sign to Tamla Records — precursor to the legendary Motown record label — is dead.

Kevin John, the nephew of the frequent Ray Charles collaborator and elder sister of R&B star Little Willie John, confirmed her death at 91 to The Detroit News.

He said the artist died Thursday (Aug. 25) in Los Angeles, where she fed the homeless via her charity in recent years. No cause of death was given but Kevin added, "We loved her and she was a kind person."

Following the tragic news, Motown Museum CEO Robin Terry posted a touching tribute to the artist, noting John's historic role in the iconic R&B label's history.

“We are deeply saddened by the death of Dr. Mable John. A truly unique talent, Mabel was an instrumental figure in Berry Gordy’s early career, assisting him with his day-to-day work as a budding songwriter and music producer," she wrote. "Receiving coaching as one of Berry’s first artists, she became the first solo female artist signed to the Tamla label. Her hard work and creativity in Motown’s early development days helped the company become an international sensation. Our hearts are with her family, friends, and fans all over the world."

Her friend and Motown labelmate Susaye Greene, the last official member to join signature girl group the Supremes, added a tribute of her own on Twitter.

"My dear friend Dr. Mable John, one of modern music’s first feminists, preacher, soulful blues singer, has joined the heavenly choir," Greene, who also performed with John as a member of the Raelettes wrote. "She was sassy, intelligent, taught me how to cook! She made it into her 90’s and was still brightly fun and full of wisdom."

The eldest of at least nine siblings in a musical family, she was born in Bastrop, Louisiana, in 1930. Her journey to musical stardom began in the early 1940s when her family moved to Detroit.

A job at the Friendship Mutual Insurance Agency after John graduated high school served as her eventual introduction to Berry Gordy, whose mother Bertha owned the company.

She worked as an agent there before spending two years at Lewis Business College. Later John ran into her former boss who introduced her to the future founder of Motown, then an aspiring producer looking for artists to sing the songs he was writing.

Things went quickly from that point.

By 1958 Gordy had signed her to his record label Tamla, which he would re-christen Motown two years later. John's time with the label produced multiple hits including "Who Wouldn't Love a Man Like That," "No Love, Looking for a Man" and "Take Me."

When the rise of the label's teen-oriented groups like the Miracles and Marvelettes relegated her to a background role and Gordy terminated her contract in 1962, John went on to work for several years as a member of Ray Charles' backing group the Raelettes, singing background vocals on many of the artist's hits before joining Memphis, Tennessee, based Stax Records for one more shot at solo stardom.

She scored a top-10 hit for the label in 1966 with “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)." The track peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard R&B chart and found some success on popular radio as well, but the six singles that followed failed to capture its magic.

In 1968, following a brief musical hiatus following the death of her Rock & Roll Hall of Famer brother Little Willie John, she left Stax to rejoin the Raelettes as musical director and singer. In the 1970s, John sang lead vocals for the group when it turned independent of Charles.

John left secular music behind in 1973 to become a minister and actress. She continued to dabble in the music industry as well, managing Christian gospel acts and occasionally recording and performing.

She made her film debut in John Sayles’ 2007 film "Honeydripper," portraying veteran blues singer Bertha Mae. In 2013, she appeared in the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet from Stardom," examining her years as Charles’ lead Raelette.

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