In soulful remembrance, Dr. Mable John (November 3, 1930-August 25, 2022)
In the course of the over five decades that soul music and its mulitiplicity of creators has been at the very centre of my world, there have been a handful of people who have traversed the highways and byways that illuminate the joy, pain, laughter and tears of my life. The indomitable resilience and ‘can do’ approach that Mable John instilled in our many conversations during time we spent together – most memorably during my first adventures when I moved to Los Angeles in September 1975 for six months (craving palm trees and sun after six months in New York) and then when I returned in 1984 to ‘The City Of Angels’ for what I imagined would be a year that morphed into twenty four – endures.
When the legendary Ray Charles performed in London in December 1970, I was just starting to contribute to ‘Blues & Soul,’ the primary publication devoted to all aspects of R&B and soul music in the UK. One of the joys of the concert (at that time, an annual event since Ray had loyal and devoted audience in Britain) was seeing The Raelets, then led by Mable. As I recall, it was John Abbey, the founder and editor of B&S that introduced Mable and my sister Sylvia to Mable and we hit it off instantly!
My personal reference for Mable prior to that was as one of the most soulful recording artists at Stax Records, and until she told me, I didn’t know of her history with Motown when she was signed to the label by Berry Gordy, Jr. as the first solo female artist. I was of course aware that she was the sister of Little Willie John, one of the most popular R&B hitmakers in the US between 1955-1961.
In 1966, her classic “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)” rocked my teenage world! Written and produced by Isaac Hayes & David Porter, it was the first of a precious handful of 45s Mable recorded for the Memphis label over the course of a couple of years and while the kind of deep soulfulness that Mable imbued into her ‘as lived’ vocals didn’t find necessarily find favour with mainstream R&B audiences at the time, they were indicative of her innate bluesy style.
Fast forward, spring of 1975, after I’ve started what will be my decades-long tenure as the resident ‘Blues & Soul’ correspondent in America, initially living in midtown Manhattan. One of the first people to reach out and welcome me was Mable, sharing with me what she was up to which I then reported in my regular column “Dateline USA,” which appeared in May 1975 (issue #160), alas with a mis-print that turned Mable John into ‘John Mable’!
A few months later, I let Mable know, that courtesy CBS International, ever eager for B&S to get coverage on some of their key Black music artists, I was headed to Los Angeles for the first time to interview Bill Withers, Ramsey Lewis and provide the first cover story for Earth, Wind & Fire ahead of their first historic performances in the UK as special guests of Santana. As was the tradition at the time , I was staying at The Continental Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard – oftimes referred to as the ‘Continental Riot House’ due to the preponderance of rock groups who stayed there and caused appropriate havoc! Mable lived literally around the corner on La Cienega Boulevard and stopped by to welcome me. I took the photo included with this article as Mable was looking out of my hotel room’s balcony and we mused about how amazing it was that my passion for soul music back in Britain had led to this magic moment where I was actually in America as a full time scribe!
Seduced by the sun and realizing that I could as easily fulfill my commitment to providing ‘Blues & Soul’ with a constant stream of interviews and reviews in Los Angeles as in New York, with the encouragement of Mable and my dear friend Doris Troy (who had moved there too), I packed my bags and headed West in September ’75. Mable’s kindless and support was immediately evident when she provided financial support as, holed up at The Hollywood Guest Inn motel, I awaited funds to arrive from London. I saw Mable frequently during the somewhat (personal) drama I experienced in my six months in the ‘Land Of La La’ before I sought refuge as such back in the ‘Big Apple’ for almost nine years.
I was back in L.A. in 1984, not thinking I would spend 24 years there! By then, Mable was no longer on the road with Ray Charles, focusing her life work on as an ordained minister and Pastor of Joy In Jesus Ministry, establishing the Community Outreach To End Homelessness in 1986, providing food and support for the homeless and disenfranchised since. During the years that followed, I witnessed Mable’s tireless commitment to making a difference. When my sister lived in L.A., she was a very active participant in volunteering with Mable’s community outreach and was honoured with an award for her services in support of her work with the programme.
As a Board member of The Rhythm & Blues Foundation, I was thrilled that we voted to have Mable receive a much-deserved Pioneer Award in 1994; she performed at the Stax 50th anniversary concert in Memphis in 2008 ; and I saw Mable in November 2009 on the ‘Divas Of Motown’ show, reprising her early recordings for Motown .
There are so many memories in between the years to recount: suffice to say, that it’s truly a blessing that I can say that Mable John- ever ‘Able Mable’- touched my life personally with love, joy and, always with soul! Rest ever heavenly, Mable.