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Mable John, Motown’s First Female Solo Artist, Dead at 91

Mable John, the first female solo artist signed to Motown (then Tamla) Records, a Stax singer and longtime Ray Charles collaborator, has died at the age of 91.

John died Thursday at her home in Los Angeles; no cause of death was revealed. “We loved her and she was a kind person,” her nephew Kevin John told the Detroit News.

The older sister of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted R&B singer Little Willie John, Mable was born in Louisiana and grew up in the South before the John family moved to Detroit in the early 1940s. Like her musical family, John embarked on a career as a singer, opening for artist like Billie Holiday.

At the same time, Mable John also worked at the Friendship Mutual Insurance Agency, a company run by Bertha Gordy, the mother of Berry Gordy, then an aspiring music producer. “He had no money and no way of getting around, but he had these people who wanted to hear his songs, so I drove him around,” John said of Gordy.

After one of Gordy’s earliest songs — Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Got a Job” — failed to secure distribution, Gordy founded his own label Tamla in 1958. John became the first solo female artist to sign and record on the label, which two years later became Motown Records.

For the legendary label, John recorded blues singles like “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That,” “Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” “I’m Finally Through with You” (back by the Supremes, then “the Primettes”) and “Take Me” alongside the Temptations.

However, just as Motown was taking over the charts with its R&B and soul hits, John, a blues artist, left the label in 1965. “Motown was just turning so pop, and I knew I wasn’t pop, but the writers were writing for success,” John said (via The Detroit News). “Berry was so busy with the business, and I found myself without a writer to concentrate on me as Berry had concentrated on me.”

Soon after, John reconnected with her friend Al Bell, who convinced the singer to sign with the Memphis label he’d just taken over, Stax Records. John’s first single on that iconic label, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, became a top 10 single on the R&B charts, and was later covered by singers like Bonnie Raitt, Etta James and the Bar-Kays.

However, after two years and a handful of singles, John left Stax, an exit that coincided with the 1968 death of her brother Little Willie John while he was in prison on a manslaughter conviction.

Following a brief break from her music career, John reemerged as musical director of and singer in Ray Charles’ famed Raelettes backing band; during her tenure with Charles, John wrote over 50 songs with the R&B legend, uDiscoverMusic writes.

Later in her career, John moved away from secular music and instead focused on gospel songs — she became a preacher as well as received a doctorate in divinity — as well as founding Los Angeles’ Joy Community Outreach, a charity that helped feed and cloth the homeless. John also as a blues singer in director John Sayles’ 2007 film Honeydripper and featured in 20 Feet From Stardom, the Academy Award-winning documentary about backup singers.

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