Mable John, Motown's First Singing Lady

She was a pioneer with the Motown label, but it took Stax Records to make her a million-seller. NPR's Tony Cox talks with veteran R&B singer Mable John about how music legends inspired the range in her voice.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Tony, I guess there will always be some kind of history made every day.

TONY COX, host:

You know, some of it good. Some of it, not so good.

CHIDEYA: And while some of it is well-publicized, sometimes, notable history goes under the radar.

COX: Now, that's true.

CHIDEYA: I'm thinking of your interview with Mable John.

COX: Oh, yeah. Now, this is a woman with an interesting past.

(Soundbite of song :Able Mable")

Ms. MABLE JOHN (Singer): (Singing) My name is Mable and don't you think I ain't able.

COX: The 77-year-old Louisiana native has been a top R&B singer, a successful novelist, a pastor, an activist and a movie actor, and I found out that Mable John is full of stories like the one about the time she met record mogul Berry Gordy before Motown was even Motown.

(Soundbite of song "Able Mable")

Ms. JOHN: (Singing) That you're leaving.

How I met Berry? That was at a barber shop on (unintelligible) that was near the fine show bar, and at that time men were wearing process. Process is the (unintelligible). And I was dating a guy that was one of those process operators in the Chesterfield lounge and barbershop, and Berry was coming and getting his hair done. I was coaching choirs for my church. And my boyfriend introduced me to Berry Gordy because Berry said he was a songwriter and he was going to have a lot of people recording his songs. And my boyfriend said you need to stop doing all of this work for the church free, and that Berry Gordy do something with you so you can get paid. So he introduced me to Berry Gordy.

COX: Now, tell us the story. We're going to skip around a little bit.

Ms. JOHN: Okay.

COX: When you and Berry Gordy connected, as Motown was just becoming a company, a record company, you are the first female to record on a label, the Tamla label.

Ms. JOHN: Yes.

COX: Before Motown.

Ms. JOHN: The first single female artist, because Claudette Robinson was a part of what become the Miracles, and he was managing them along with me.

COX: Right.

Ms. JOHN: So I was the first single female artist to be signed to Tamla, which is a part of the Motown family.

COX: When you think about that now, how do you feel about looking at that as a historic moment?

Ms. JOHN: No one could have bought that time. God had to give it to me.

(Soundbite of song "True Love Can Be Found")

Ms. JOHN: (Singing) Hey. Hey.

COX: I understand that you were rehearsing one day and these three young girls came in and interrupted your rehearsal.

Ms. JOHN: The girls that we know now as The Supremes. They came into a rehearsal that I was doing with Berry Gordy because he played also for me, played piano for me. We were there rehearsing and these girls came in and I didn't quite remember everything that was said that day because it's been so long. But Mary Wilson of The Supremes, remembered when she was writing her book to say that when she first walked into Motown, the three of them walked in and my question to Berry Gordy was, why are they walking in on my rehearsal, because all of our rehearsals were private.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JOHN: (Singing) It takes a more than 'em flashy old money and I wink from the corner of your eye. I don't want no big line calls, (unintelligible) caviar. Oh no, true love baby can be found 'cause you take a look around.

COX: Talking about faith. Your career at Motown never really took off, and after some few years, you decided to go to Memphis, where you joined the Stax label and hooked up with Porter and Isaac Hayes. And then, it was long after that that you had a million seller.

Ms. JOHN: Right. Well, Motown, Berry Gordy, they were all along with God and my parents a part of my future. So Motown was my beginning. It was one that was different from everywhere else I've ever been. But I think it was a necessary one to make the transition for me from Motown to Stax.

COX: Now, your big song at Stax, one of your - the biggest of your songs was…

Ms. JOHN: The biggest of all songs.

COX: "Your Good Thing is About to End."

Ms. JOHN: "…Is About to End." Right. Right.

COX: See, I'm old enough to have remembered that song.

Ms. JOHN: Well, that's good. That makes me feel you don't have to be very old to remember that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Your Good Thing is About to End")

Ms. JOHN: (Singing) I don't have to beg you to hold me 'cause somebody else will. You don't have to love me when I want it, 'cause somebody else will.

It was a story that I needed to tell because of a bad marriage. And at Stax, they would allow you to be yourself. Everybody participated in whatever success you're going to have, everybody, including the drummer.

COX: Really? Tell me about your family. And I'm switching to that for a reason because you were one of 10 children, right?

Ms. JOHN: The oldest…

COX: The oldest of 10.

Ms. JOHN: …of 10 children.

COX: And you happen to have a little brother, a baby brother who was a big time performer, Little Willie John.

Ms. JOHN: Yes. Little Willie John. William Edward John. Now, when I got with Willy that was another education.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHN: Because he said my name is Little Willie John. It might be William Edward John to you, and you're my sister and I love you. But if you're not good, I'm going to send you home.

COX: Obviously, you are good.

Ms. JOHN: Well, he let me stay.

(Soundbite of song "Your Good Thing is About to End")

Ms. JOHN: (Singing) You have all the love that I've got. Even ice melts to water and gets hot. Look out, your good thing is about to come to an end. Your real good thing…

COX: You were the leader of the Raelettes for a dozen years.

Ms. JOHN: Yes.

COX: Traveling all over with and without Ray Charles.

Ms. JOHN: With and without Ray Charles. Yes.

COX: In the movie, "Ray," I had looked in the credits to see if there were someone who played you…

Ms. JOHN: No.

COX: …since you have been a Raelette for so long, and I saw that there wasn't one.

Ms. JOHN: No.

COX: And is there a reason for that?

Ms. JOHN: Well, it was the years before I came.

COX: Okay.

Ms. JOHN: And I tell everybody that asks me, the best of his life were the years after the movie. When I came to work with him, he sat me down and told me all about his beginning, told me all about things that ticks him off and things that excite him, what he was looking for and how he wanted it. And I knew that being with him would finish me in this industry…

COX: Now, when he…

Ms. JOHN: …because he was at the top - complete me.

COX: Okay.

Ms. JOHN: So that I could work for any audience, sing any kind of songs. Remember now, at the beginning I thought I could only sing gospel. With Berry Gordy, I found out I could sing the blues. I went to Stax and I find out I could sing love songs. I got with Ray Charles and we sang country - everything. And we could play to any audience. I wanted to sing what was in my heart to everybody that loves music, and Ray Charles was the place for me to be, to do that.

COX: So the Raelettes - would you say that was the highlight of your career?

Ms. JOHN: It was a highlight. It was highlight because I learned things about myself, about my career, about the industry. I was able to set up my own publishing companies and production companies because of the knowledge that I gained with and from Ray Charles.

COX: And after all of that, Mable John, your career did not stop. It has gone on into movies, into - you've written a couple of novels.

Ms. JOHN: Excuse me. I just finished the third.

COX: Oh, number three. You've done three novels. You're a minister.

Ms. JOHN: Yes.

COX: And you started a church.

Ms. JOHN: Yes.

COX: And you help the homeless.

Ms. JOHN: Yes.

COX: And you're a grandmother.

Ms. JOHN: A great-grandmother.

COX: And a great-grandmother. How is it possible for one person to do all of those things and to do them as successfully as you have?

Ms. JOHN: It's all God. Some days, when people are telling me how busy I am. And when I sit down to think about it, I get tired.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHN: So I don't. I don't go there. I just get up every morning and I thank God for the activity of that day. And I have to thank a woman that's no longer with us, Ms. Billie Holiday, because that's the voice that I hear in my ear still to this day. I worked with her two weeks before she passed. And she said to me, Honey - because I was frightened out of my wits - you can make it if you remember. Always know when you have done or given enough. Not to be afraid and have guts enough to say I quit.

(Soundbite of song "Your Good Thing is About to End")

Ms. JOHN: (Singing) Even ice melts to water and gets hot…

COX: It's so nice talking with you. Thank you for coming in.

Ms. JOHN: I thank you.

(Soundbite of song "Your Good Thing is About to End")

Ms. JOHN: (Singing) Your good thing is about to come to an end. Your real good thing…

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox with singer, author and actor Mable John. Look for Mable John in the upcoming John Sayles film, "Honeydripper."

(Soundbite of song "Your Good Thing is About to End")

Ms. JOHN: (Singing) Getting myself back together.

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today, and thank you sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. No spaces, just nprnewsandnotes.org.

To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio consortium. Tomorrow, a reporter shares Donda West's last interview.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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