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Mable John, the first solo female artist signed by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, has died. She was 91.
The veteran R&B singer passed away at her home in Los Angeles on Thursday (Aug. 25), her nephew Kevin John told The Detroit News. A cause of death has not yet been revealed.
“We loved her and she was a kind person,” Kevin John said of his aunt, who was the older sister of R&B star Little Willie John.
In addition to being the first solo female artist signed to Motown (then Tamla), Mable John also recorded hit songs for Stax Records and she was a singer in Ray Charles’ Raelettes backing band.
John was born on Nov. 3, 1930 in Bastrop, Louisiana. The oldest of nine children, she and her family lived in the South before moving to Detroit in the early 1940s. As a teenager, John took a job with the Friendship Mutual Insurance Company, founded by Bertha Gordy, the mother of then-aspiring music producer Berry Gordy.
“He became my vocal coach, my manager and, within a couple of years, my record producer,” John recalled to author Susan Whithall, according to Motown Classic’s website.
Gordy later arranged John’s professional musical debut at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar, where she opened for Billie Holiday in 1959. John became the first solo female act to sign with Gordy’s Tamla Records in 1958. The label became Motown two years later.
During her stint with the legendary music company, John recorded blues songs including “Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That,” “Actions Speak Louder Than Words,” “No Love,” “Looking for a Man,” and “Take Me” with background harmonies by The Temptations.
John left Motown in the mid 1960s to join Stax Records in Memphis, where she teamed up with with the songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter for her 1966 hit “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” which reached No. 6 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100. The popular song was later recorded by Lou Rawls, Etta James, Bonnie Raitt and others.
After releasing a handful of singles on Stax, John departed the label to became the musical director and a singer in Ray Charles’ Raelettes backing band, where she collaborated on dozens of songs during her decade-long stay.
John eventually left the music business and became a minister, founding Los Angeles’ Joy Community Outreach, which assists with feeding and clothing the homeless. She made her onscreen debut as a veteran blues singer in John Sayles’ 2007 film Honeydripper, and was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
A version of this story first appeared on billboard.com
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