The first female solo artist to be signed by the music label that would come to be known as Motown Records, Mable John, passed away this week at the age of 91, Billboard reported.
John died at her home in Los Angeles, California on Thursday, according to her family, but no cause of death has been revealed thus far.
First female solo artist signed by Motown Records
“We loved her and she was a kind person,” Kevin John, Mable’s nephew, told The Detroit News of his famous blues singer aunt.
Mable John was born in 1930 in Bastrop, Louisiana as the oldest of nine children of Mertis and Lillie John, who moved the family around the South for several years before settling in Detroit, Michigan in the early 1940s.
The John family was musically talented, and a teenage Mable joined her younger brother William Edward John — better known as legendary R&B singer Little Willie John, who tragically died in prison in 1968 — on tour while also at the same time working for an insurance company in Detroit that was owned by Bertha Gordy, mother of aspiring music producer Berry Gordy, who hooked up with Mable and helped coach and develop her singing talent.
In 1958, according to Billboard, Gordy signed John as the first female solo act to his own music label, Tamla Records, which would be renamed Motown Records just a couple of years later.
Leader of Ray Charles’ backup group, the Raelettes
John released several blues singles and collaborations with Tamla/Motown Records until 1965, when she left that label over the “pop” direction it had shifted, albeit still on good terms with Gordy, according to The Detroit News.
She then moved on to sign with the more blues-centric Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee in 1966, where she teamed up with Isaac Hayes and others to release more hit singles.
Billboard noted that John left Stax after a few years, however, and joined up with Ray Charles as the musical director and lead singer of his backup band, the Raelettes, and helped put out dozens of songs until she eventually left the group in the late 1970s.
Transition into gospel music, preaching and caring for the homeless
According to Rolling Stone, John quit secular music altogether after splitting with Ray Charles and the Raelettes and instead focused on producing gospel music for the remainder of her career.
She also obtained a doctorate of divinity and became a minister of her own church in Los Angeles, where she also formed a charity known as Joy Community Outreach that helped provide food and clothing for the homeless.
Mable John was a groundbreaking pioneer of the Motown era of R&B music who, per The Detroit News, had four sons with four husbands over the years, of which she is directly survived only by the youngest son, Lemuel, as well as several grandchildren who will undoubtedly mourn her loss greatly