Soul music comes in many guises but I think the one I love best is slow-burning deep soul from the Deep South. This is a prime example by Mable John, who died on 25 August at the ripe old age of 91.
She might not be a household name but she earned a place in pop history 65 years ago, first for persuading Berry Gordy Jr to start his own label – and then becoming the first female to be signed to it
Mable, whose parents had moved from their native Louisiana so her father could work in a Detroit car factory, had found a job as Gordy’s chauffeur and general factotum.
It was on a trip to New York with Smokey Robinson that the pair of them persuaded him to start Motown. So he did, and he promptly signed her up in 1959, putting her onstage with Billie Holiday just two weeks before Lady Day’s death.
But despite the Motown founder’s contribution as her mentor, pianist and songwriter, Mable never became a star there. Her voice was perhaps a bit too rough around the edges, a bit too authentically bluesy for the pop-soul label that dubbed itself “the sound of young America.”
So in 1966 she signed to Stax, travelling down south to Memphis where in-house songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter were sent to her room at the Lorraine Motel – to write her some songs. This was the first.
It was also her only hit.
They didn’t just make it up on the spot: Mable told them how her husband had been cheating on her and Porter sketched out the words while Hayes came up with the melody and chord changes on that piano.
The result is as much a blues ballad as a soul song, filled with intense emotional pain, as if Mable had finally been freed from her shackles after a decade in Detroit’s hit factory. Which she had.
Footnote: two years after recording this at the nearby Stax studio, Mable was asked if she would mind moving rooms in the hotel for one night, as a VIP regular was coming to stay and that was his favourite.
Mable moved out, Dr Martin Luther King moved in, and the very same day he was shot dead on the balcony of that room. A month later her brother Little Willie John – singer of the million-selling 1957 hit Fever – died in prison while serving time for manslaughter.
When Stax collapsed, Mable joined Ray Charles as leader of his backing singers, the Raelettes, before finding God and moving to Los Angeles to become a pastor, running a homeless charity there.
RIP Mable John (1930-2022)