Older sister of R&B star Little Willie John, Mable John was the first solo female artist signed by Berry Gordy. While none of her bluesy singles on Tamla became hits, she played a big part helping get his company established and always shared a mutual loyalty with the Gordy family and her fellow Motowners.


  • First Hit: “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)” (for Stax Records)
  • Biggest Hit: “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)”
  • Biggest Album: My Name Is Mable: The Complete Collection (her Motown recordings)
  • Career Highlight: “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)” gave Mable her first, and only major national hit and inspired cover versions by Lou Rawls (a top 20 pop hit) and at least nine other artists, most recently by Robert Cray in 2014.
  • Although born in Louisiana, the oldest of nine children, Mable John’s family moves to Arkansas, then Detroit after her father gets a job at the Dodge auto factory. The family settles in the Dequindre Projects, a housing development built for auto workers nicknamed “Cardboard Valley” because of the thin walls. Her parents are musical and, with four of her siblings, she forms a gospel group, the United Five, who open programs locally for the nation’s leading gospel singers of the ‘50s. Among their neighbors is a young Levi Stubbs Jr., later the Four Tops lead singer, who befriends Mable’s younger brother Willie as the two compete in local talent contests at the Paradise Ballroom, taking turns winning.
  • Teenaged Mable first connects with the Gordy family by taking a part-time clerical job with the Friendship Mutual Insurance Company, founded by Berry’s mother, Bertha Gordy. Mable also becomes active in her church choir.
  • After completing school, Mable works full time for the Gordy insurance agency, and rises to director for five different church choirs in the region. She also travels with her brother Little Willie John as his career explodes with the hit song “Fever.” She decides to follow Willie into show business in the mid-‘50s and is introduced to an auto worker, Berry Gordy, who has ambitions of succeeding in the music business. “He became my vocal coach, my manager and, within a couple of years, my record producer,” she later tells author Susan Whithall.
  • Berry grooms her, has her sing background vocals on his productions and, while accompanying her on piano, develops her stage act. He also has her observe the leading stars of the day at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar. He arranges her professional debut at the Flame Show Bar, opening for Billie Holiday in 1959, not long before Billie’s passing.
  • As Berry’s business plans unfold, Mable regularly accompanies him on trips and industry functions, serving as his driver and becoming a valued confidante. Along with Smokey Robinson, Mable convinces Berry to start his own record company. She and Berry visit radio stations, disc jockey conventions, record executives and distributors as she assists in representing his young enterprise.
  • mble john collectionIn 1960, Berry co-writes and produces her first recordings, releasing “Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That” backed with “You Made A Fool Out Of Me” in August. The record gets some airplay and some critical notice, selling modestly but not charting.
  • A second Mable release follows in June ‘61 on which she delivers a convincingly mournful performance on the ballad “No Love,” a tune in the vein of Chuck Willis’ popular and oft-covered 1956 R&B hit “It’s Too Late.” That style is fading from fashion, however, and gets little attention. Berry writes this and the B-side “Looking For A Man,” for which he asked Mabel what kind of man she was looking for. A couple of weeks after its release, Berry and Mable fly to New York to re-record the A-side with a string section, a bigger sound and different opening, but it still falls short of the charts.
  • A third strong single follows in November ’61. Gordy’s composition “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” unfortunately suffers a similar fate as Mable’s first two releases. The B-side, another strong bluesy performance on “Take Me,” also benefitted from background harmonies by the Temptations, who were in the earliest phases of their recording career.
  • John continues to record in 1962, including a duet with Tamla artist Singin’ Sammy Ward, another track on which the Supremes sing backup, and a song she writes with her mother Lillie John, “My Name Is Mable,” but nothing from this period is released.
  • A final Mable John single on Tamla appears in 1963 when she records a second version of “Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That,” updating the bouncy original. Production duties are credited to Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier but Stevie Wonder – uncredited at the time – had much to do with this version, conceiving a different approach and convincing Berry to let him take a crack at it. It’s possibly the first song Stevie produces at Motown. The B-side, “Say You’ll Never Let Me Go,” again features the Temptations on backing vocals.
  • Mable records more tracks but as Motown starts having hits with its unique blend of pop, R&B, jazz and gospel, Mable’s bluesier approach diverges from what is selling and nothing gets released. Mable eventually relocates to Chicago and in 1966 her friend, Chicago area disc jockey Lucky Cordell, sends her Tamla singles to Stax Records in Memphis and they express interest. Mable phones Berry and tearfully asks to be released from her Motown contract. Berry sadly agrees – sending her flowers (and a check) shortly afterward – and she signs with Stax Records in Memphis.
  • Working with Stax’s top songwriting team, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, Mable recounts the story of a bad marriage. “It was a story that was inside me. It was a pain and it needed to get out,” she tells The Guardian newspaper decades later. The bluesy Hayes-Porter composition “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)” results, she records it, and it rockets to Number 6 on the R&B chart and Number 95 on the Pop chart, the biggest song of her career.
  • Mable records five more fine Stax singles, including an updated version of “My Name Is Mable,” re-titled “Able Mable.” Only “You’re Taking Up  Another Man’s Place” hits the charts, and only on the Cashbox R&B chart. When the company ends its relationship with Atlantic Records in 1968, the re-born Stax Records releases one more single that does not chart, but before that, Mable departs to work for Ray Charles as a choir mistress of the Raelettes, where she stays for 10 years. She then leaves the music business and returns to the church, becoming a minister in Los Angeles, with an emphasis in community outreach.
  • In 1992, Stax releases Stay Out Of The Kitchen, a CD compilation of Mable’s material – largely unreleased – recorded in Memphis during the Atlantic period.
  • My Name Is Mable: The Complete Collection, a CD of Mable’s Tamla releases plus nine unreleased tracks, is released by Universal Music U.K. in 2004.
  • In 2006, Mable and author David Ritz collaborate on a series of inspirational novels, beginning with the publication of Sanctified Blues, the fictional account of Pastor Albertina Merci, a former singer turned spiritual leader. Two more books are published in the next few years.
  • Mable makes her screen debut in 2008, playing Bertha Mae, a veteran blues singer in the John Sayles film Honeydripper. Set in 1950, the Guardian newspaper writes: “A miniaturised and romanticised version of the birth of rock’n’roll, the tale allows John to steal the first half of the film with wonderfully authoritative accounts of an idiom rendered obsolete by postwar fashions.”

Listen to Mable John