Mable John

TrackSingle / Album
Take MeTamla 54050
Say You'll Never Let Me GoTamla T-54081
Your Good Thing (Is About To End)Stax 45-192
I'm A Big Girl NowStax 45-225
Left Over LoveStax 45-234
Running OutStax STA-0016
Shouldn't I Love HimStax STA-0016
Drop On InStay Out Of The Kitchen
I Love You More Than Words Can SayStay Out Of The Kitchen
Be Warm To MeStay Out Of The Kitchen
I Need Your Love So BadStay Out Of The Kitchen

Mable John photo 1

 

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Mable John playlist

 

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

“One lady does deserve a special mention. Mable John (note Mable not Mabel) only made a few records for Motown before Gordy let her go. Both the two included here are atypical for the label. Take Me in particular sounds like an undiscovered Southern Soul gem. Which I guess is just what those clever people at One Day wanted me to say!”

I wrote those words in a review contained within the sub-section on Tamla Motown in my book, “RocknRoll”. The review was of an album entitled The Sound Of Detroit – Original Gems From The Motown Vaults from One Day Records. It covered the music from the Motown group of labels issued up to roughly 1962 with names like the Miracles, the Contours, Mary Wells, Barrett Strong and more included. There were also less familiar names like the SatinTones, Popcorn & the Mohawks and others. For many people reading this, Mable John would be in the second grouping. Mable had had three singles released by the start of ’62, and one more would follow. None of those singles had achieved any serious chart success unlike releases from several of the artists in the first grouping which had already started to make waves.

Mable’s first single, which coupled Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That with You Made A Fool Out Of Me was released in August 1960. Before saying anything else at all, I should go on record with the fact that this was the first appearance of a female solo artist on Motown (and by Motown, I’m widening that to any of the Tamla/Motown labels). Perhaps not surprisingly, big boss man Berry Gordy Jr. was taking very close personal control: he produced and shared writer credits for both tracks.

For a debut disc, Mable herself sounds extremely confident. She’d been round the block a few times – see more later – and you felt you were in safe hands. Her tone matched what the lyrics called for, and more, and the depth was there when she wanted to turn it on. So, an A for the performance of the principal, but what about the material and the arrangement?

Both sides had a slightly old-fashioned feel about them. Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That sounded something like a mash-up of sophisticated jump blues with night club swingtime ambiance, accentuated by the finger snapping. Drilling down a bit further, there’s a resemblance rhythmically to Little Willie John’s famous record, Fever, from 1956. That’s unlikely to be accidental when I reveal that, to quote from Wiki, Mable was the “the eldest of at least nine siblings” and one of those was Little Willie John, so there was at least one relationship between Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That and little brother Willie’s Fever. Berry Gordy would have been very well aware of the success of the cover version from Peggy Lee and probably felt that a record that jogged those memory banks might go down well. For comparison, here is Mable:

And who knows, it might have gone down well but for the fact that less than a month later a record featuring the second female artist to record at Motown appeared on the market: Bye Bye Baby from a teenage Mary Wells, to name that platter. Once again Gordy was heavily involved though the song this time, came from Mary herself – she arrived at the audition with it – and while there might have been some creative cribbing going on in the intro – think Isley Brothers – the end result was something that both black and white youth were to find irresistible. By December, things were happening in the R&B Chart and by the end of January the record had crossed over into the Hot 100 where it would eventually reach #45.

All of which was great for Mary and great for Motown, but it did mean that much of Gordy’s attention switched to Ms Wells, a situation that would continue as her career blossomed. And it inevitably meant that Berry had less time for Mable.

I shouldn’t ignore the flipside to that debut disc. You Made A Fool Out Of Me wasn’t a blues in structure but, with its tripletting piano, was not unlike some of the very early Fats Domino slowies and was the kind of thing we’d probably label as a blues ballad these days, of the sort that blues singers would often leaven their sets of 12 bar blues with. And, crucially, the sort of thing that Mable felt she was born to sing. I haven’t seen those explicit words in any interview or feature on the lady but that’s my interpretation of her feelings. In the excellent Ponderosa Stomp article on Mable written by Bill Dahl and clearly based on a very informative interview with her, she comments on being on the same bill as Billie Holiday (arranged by Berry Gordy and happening prior to her first record release):

“I was the opening act for the two weeks. It was really a lesson for me. I adored her so much, and her singing. She taught me so much. She was able to instil some things in me in two weeks, in 40 years nobody has been able to take out. I rely on the things that she taught me in those 10 days today.”

Record #2 from Mable switched things around; the more up tempo item, Looking For A Man, appeared on the A-side, and this time it more clearly echoed jump blues; the blues ballad, (I Guess There’s) No Love, was on the flip. Unusually they had two goes at the B-side, this one appeared on the initial release, and the second with strings replaced it after a month or so. Either Berry was unhappy with the first effort or perhaps, given his penchant for experimentation, he just wanted to hear the song with strings; ever since Leiber & Stoller had used a bank of violins on There Goes My Baby in spring ’59, the technique of adding strings to R&B records had become commonplace.

The A-side of single #3 from Mable, Actions Speak Louder Than Words was a decent track and as close as Berry had got to uptown soul so far – once again he was composer/producer – but it paled into insignificance in comparison to the flip. The title of Take Me, a song from Motown staff writers Andre Williams and William “Mickey” Stevenson, promised something that might at least smoulder. It did more than that; it erupted. The Motown Junkies site uses the word “awesome” and went on to describe the record as “louche, gospel-inflected quasi-blues, occasionally chaotically disorganised and occasionally near-devotional in its direct intensity”. Lyrically, the song is one of desolation and not so quiet desolation either. Mable is “lonesome and blue”, looking forward to a life of “pain and misery”. There’s a recitation cum rap section wherein she lists how well her friends were but adding sneering comment – “ain’t they lucky”, “always thought they’d make a nice couple” – which is unlike any mid-song recitation I’ve ever heard; it virtually turns the trope on its head. And she’s supported throughout by excellent backing male singers (with a prominent Mr. Bassman) who might or might not have been the Temptations (but I suspect not, since the Motown Junkies don’t mention their name).

Easily the finest record from Mable’s stay at Motown.

Which was about to come to an end because, after a gap of eighteen months or so, her final single emerged. The A-side consisted of a new interpretation of Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That for which Stevie Wonder – then still fairly “Little” – shared production duties with Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. One can only assume that Berry had a load of faith in the song, which would seem to have been misplaced judging by lack of results. (One easy visual way of telling the records apart is that this one was on Tamla, as had been her previous two singles leaving only the original version of the number on Motown, though as stated earlier I’ve been using the generic ‘Motown’ as label/identifier.)

The flip was considerably more interesting. Penned and produced by staffer, Clarence Paul (son of Lowman Pauling of the “5” Royales), Say You’ll Never Let Me Go was another blues ballad again featuring backing male singers, a combination that seemed to suit Mable. Billboard described the track as “A nice cosy-sounding blues affectionate”. The record also boasted an unusual feature in having a fade-in, a device that Motown also deployed on at least one of Mary Wells’ singles.

That clip, in addition to some earlier ones came from the 2004 Spectrum album, My Name Is Mable – The Complete Collection. It contained not only the released tracks (including alternates) but also nine previously unreleased ones (and it’s on Spotify). I’d love to say that that batch of unreleased tracks contained some previously hidden gems but I can’t place hand on heart and do so. In the main, the tracks show Mable in a more upbeat and poppy vein i.e. on the route on which Motown would travel, although that is, you’ll appreciate, a very rough simplification. Certain tracks like I’m Yours, You’re Mine, a duet with Singin’ Sammy Ward, and Look At Me from the Andre Williams/Mickey Stevenson writing duo, harked back to gospel and blues but others like I’m Finally Through With You (with backing from the Supremes) and Meet Me Half Way (Holland & Dozier again) could well have been semi-early vehicles for Motown artists who went on to establish a reputation with the label. There was nothing in the material which had been previously been held back, which could be called a soul/blues ballad i.e. nothing from the route on which Mable wished to travel.

After the fourth single from Mable, she and Motown went their separate ways with no recriminations on either side. In the words of Mable as documented by Rob Bowman in the 1992 Stax/Ace compilation, Stay Out Of The Kitchen:

“I discovered that Motown was not going to be the record company that could cater to my type of singing. I’m not really a pop singer.”

After flying south to a meeting with Al Bell, VP Promotion at Stax, she signed a new contract. It would result in the release of seven singles between 1966 and 1968 plus a considerable number of unreleased tracks. So many in fact that one wonders whether Stax were planning to release an album. The Wiki piece on Mable does show an LP, also entitled Stay Out Of The Kitchen with the year, 1966 against it. However, this appears to be an error; the Stax LP schedule through the years 1965 to 1967 doesn’t show it and there are no gaps in the numbering.

In the excellent article Richard Williams wrote for The Guardian in 2008, he interviewed Mable and a fascinating story emerged of how her first record for her new company came about. She had booked into a hotel in Memphis, the Lorraine Motel, for four nights and it was there that songwriters, Isaac Hayes and David Porter went to meet her. It was quickly established that neither side had brought any songs with them so, the duo arranged for a piano to be brought into her room. By the end of the second day they still didn’t have anything, then, in the words of Mable:

“So I said to them, there’s a story that I need to tell. It’s about a bad marriage. Isaac just began to play. David Porter had a pad and pencil and he was standing beside me, with the pad on the top of the piano. As I talked, he’d say: ‘You could sing that. If you take the last thing you just said and we put that at the beginning of the verse, we could do it just like that.’ And Isaac carried on playing. I had no idea how the music or the melody should go. I just knew it was a story that was inside of me. It was a pain and it needed to get out.”

By the time they had finished that night, that first song, Your Good Thing (Is About To End), had emerged in embryonic format. The following day they went to the Stax studio and converted those scribbles into something tangible. The record that came out the other end of the process gave Mable her biggest ever hit, #6 in the R&B Chart and #95 in the Hot 100. Even the gent writing for the Motown Junkies, notwithstanding understandable bias, states “she came into her own on a grand scale … with the magnificent Your Good Thing Is About To End in 1966, which I could listen to all day.”

I don’t have to beg you to hold me
‘Cause somebody else will
You don’t have to love me when I want it, no
‘Cause somebody else will

Your so called friends say you don’t need it
When all the time they’re trying to get it
Look out
Your good thing is about to come to an end
Your real good thing is about to come to an end

Very slow. Piano (from Isaac). Steve Cropper coming in quietly while Mable virtually chats through the first couple of lines though emotion appears as early as the words “You don’t have to love me when I want it”. The Memphis Horns add weight to the closing lines but these are sad, sad horns not “Hold On I’m Coming” horns. According to Mable, David Porter was in the booth with her, prodding her when he wanted a higher note. And to end it all, oh, so suitably, out of nowhere a sax appears extemporising over the fade.

A masterpiece. Would that she could have built on the success of that record with her follow-up singles. And don’t take that statement the wrong way. Mable’s follow-up singles were good, very, very good. Not only that, the Stay Out Of The Kitchen compilation I’ve mentioned has another half dozen or so, maybe more, soul ballads that are in the same league as Your Good Thing.

Let’s take a step backwards first and consider the nature of these singles and the previously unreleased tracks. Of the seven singles, six had Hayes/Porter songs and production on at least one side with one having such authorship/production on both sides. All of the Hayes/Porter tracks were what I’d broadly term soul ballads and according to Mable (in the Stay Out Of The Kitchen sleeve notes) were produced via the same method as her first A-side i.e. by Mable booking into a Memphis hotel, usually the Lorraine, and Isaac or David would ask her to talk about anything she wanted and the songs would emerge. In effect, Mable was a co-writer on these songs since the lyrical content came from her life, even if she didn’t always coin the exact words. Of the other songs, and let’s widen this now to the ‘unreleased’ tracks, names like Cropper, Floyd and (Booker T.) Jones appeared in the composer line, plus Stax regulars like Homer Banks and Deanie Parker with Mable herself contributing several; this was something that she also did in her later existence as leader of the Raelettes.

Musically, the second half of the sixties at Stax was more sophisticated than the period 1961 through to ‘65 although many of the key people were involved for most if not almost all of the total period. These included the house band, the M.G.’s with Isaac Hayes often adding piano, particularly on Mable’s records, plus, of course, the Memphis Horns. There were occasions too, when Isaac stood in for Booker either on organ or piano. In general, both melodies and arrangements grew in sophistication as the years went by but in terms of the latter, the sense of minimalism and separation of instruments was often retained. Strings were used, but sparingly. Outside influences were taken on board but made to sound as if they’d been invented in McLemore Avenue. With funk in particular, you felt that the Stax house band had invented as much if not more than they’d plundered. And they probably had.

Taking the released Hayes/Porter songs first, You’re Taking Up Another Man’s Place, the immediate follow-up to Your Good Thing, and another fine record, was relatively subdued both in Mable’s delivery and in its mainly two chord structure. Perhaps that message of burning resentment – “if you’re not gonna love me / what do you expect me to do” – either didn’t get through or didn’t appeal to record buyers. I can’t conjure up any excuse why 1967’s Same Time, Same Place didn’t appeal. Once again, a fine ballad with more explicit melody and a pleasing descending run leading to the hook line – “meet me at the same time, same place” – emphasised by those horns. Once again, the buyers didn’t exactly run to the record shops to pick it up. If they had they would have obtained a second dose of Isaac and David (on the flip) but caught them (and Mable) on a rare positive note. (Your Love Gets) Bigger And Better (Everyday), with the bracketed bits of the punch line not included in the title, even had a bounce to convey the considerably more joyful theme.

Rounding up this mini-section on what I’m going to call Isaac/David/Mable A-sides (even if one flip did sneak in) is I’m A Big Girl Now, another ballad but one on which several components come together to generate a track with much more edge than its immediate forerunners: Isaac’s piano is higher (and stronger) in the mix producing a sound that was not unlike Ray Charles Atlantic blues ballad keyboard striking, responses from a femme chorus which, intentional or not, also evoke a slight Charles/Raelettes comparison, either egged on by the backing ladies (or more likely, David Porter in the booth), Mable gives us a delivery with heightened light and shade, a rhythmic change on the middle-eight with a complex but satisfying return to the verses and finally a fade-out to die for. Stax really was a past master on fades.

The theme? Surely you’ve guessed it. This lady ain’t gonna cry no more cause she’s a …

With Isaac/David/Mable plug sides not seeming to do the trick, the trio’s input got banished to the flips on the next two singles, although it must be said that the respective A-sides were certainly not without interest so let’s take those first. I suspect the title of the first, Don’t Hit Me No More might cause the odd eyebrow to be lifted but study of the lyrics of the first verse and chorus reveal that the subject matter is about more than domestic violence:

I’m so sorry you had to slap me
‘Cause you never done that before
But I’m so glad that man made a pass at me
I used to wonder if you love me, now darling, I know

So don’t you hit me no more
Don’t hit me no more
‘Cause the next time you hit me
Be ready to quit me
I’m your woman
And don’t you hit me no more

Musically the track would seem to have come from sometime before the Motown records but with a level of sophistication that was well beyond Motown in the early sixties. And Mable was as raw and hurting as she was on Take Me, if not more so. Hence variation in comparison to the other Stax singles. The following A-side gave us more: Able Mable allowed Mable to indulge in some bragging courtesy of herself, since she wrote it. An earlier version can be found in My Name Is Mable: The Complete Collection but the Stax makeover took the song from jump blues to super cool. And it gave Mable a strapline:

My name is Mable
And don’t you think I ain’t able
I can take a complication
Make it a simple situation

I’m hot in the morning
Real cool in the evening
I’ll make you wanna come back
When you think that you are leaving

And the B-sides from the Isaac/David/Mable trio? They didn’t disappoint. Both were soul ballads; no surprise there and both addressed the unfaithful husband/partner/lover theme. Again, no surprise, but Left Over Love and Don’t Get Caught found different ways and different moods to address the age-old story with the first making the cut and the second just being eased out, in spite of a virtuoso performance from Steve Cropper.

Mable’s final record was the one which pushed Messrs Hayes & Porter out the door. Steve Cropper took over production duties for both numbers, a role with which he wasn’t unfamiliar given his job as studio manager. The A-side, Running Out, was something of a surprise in that it got closer than she’d ever got to pop, albeit very good pop but with a narrative that was still familiar – “I’m running out of teardrops / Running out of heartaches / Sick and tired of your lies / Excusing what you do”. Unusually also for Stax, the track was a cover; the song came from the very fine composing duo of Ashford and Simpson with its initial performance being from a gentleman called Vernon Garrett with his version being more explicitly soul than the John cover. But the combination of downer lyrics but relatively upbeat arrangement was an old trick in the pop world and Mable proved to be highly adept at coping with it.

John and Cropper reverted to in-house sources for the flip; Shouldn’t I Love Him was penned by Steve himself plus Homer Banks and for me, its structure, based largely on a descending set of notes, and arrangement, were reminiscent of early Stax and Otis records (though I can’t pin down a particular comparator and of course those histrionics were absent). In other respects it’s somewhat like I’m A Big Girl Now but whereas that one was more of a monologue with Mable telling the girls, this time she’s asking them – “Girl’s shouldn’t I love him?” is the full punch line. The track appeals to me in part because of its deceptive simplicity.

The quality of the ‘new’ tracks on Stay Out Of The Kitchen didn’t vary significantly from that found on the singles, and I only biased my selections slightly to the singles since those tracks have been in the public domain somewhat longer. An initial run through the tracks gives one the impression that several more danceable numbers had been left in the can only to end up on this album, examples being the title number and the John written Ain’t Giving It Up on which the opening bars suggest that someone might have been listening to certain Chess Records. However, as you continue working your way through the set and get to roughly the second side (if this had been an LP), you get to slow soul ballad after slow soul ballad. If you wanted any confirmation that this was Mable’s métier, this was it. None of these tracks had seen release before; Mable’s name as composer appears against five of them with only two being co-writes; any or all of them could have been in the Ten. To be precise I’m talking about tracks #12 to #18. I went for three (and I kept the words to a minimum since there have been too many words and not enough music so far).

Drop On In (Booker T. Jones) – semi-disguised blues.

I Love You More Than Words Can Say (Eddie Floyd, Booker T. Jones) – there’s also a version from Otis but this is far better.

Be Warm To Me (Mable John) – doesn’t need words from me.

 

*

I need someone’s hand, to lead me through the night
I need someone arms to hold and squeeze me tight

Lyrics that are engraved in the brain of many blues and soul fans from the song that Little Willie John co-wrote with his brother Mertis and recorded in 1955, I Need Your Love So Bad; others might know the song from the Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac or the Gary Moore version. Willie John died on 26th May 1968. His sister Mable recorded the number shortly after his death. It’s a fine performance and is the last track on the album. It’s also my bonus track. Rob Bowman quotes her words in the sleeve notes:

“I wanted to do something in memory of him. I didn’t ever want my brother Willie’s name to die.”

Stay Out Of The Kitchen, even allowing for the fact that it doesn’t hold several of her singles’ sides, including Your Good Thing (Is About To End), remains, by far, the record of that period of time.

Early on in this article I referred to Berry Gordy arranging for Mable to share a bill with Billie Holiday for two weeks and what she learned from the experience. What I didn’t say was that Berry didn’t commit to making a record with Mable until he (and she) were totally comfortable with her singing ability. She also says in the Bill Dahl interview/article, “They did a lot of the training having me watch other women in the industry such as Dakota Staton and Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Della Reese.” I firmly believe that what she achieved eventually at Stax was a sixties equivalent to the work of those estimable ladies in earlier years, even though her name hasn’t come anywhere near the ‘official’ records of popular music of the twentieth century.

Mable is still with us and has had an extremely interesting life post Motown and Stax, but for more on that read on.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Mable John was born on 3rd November 1930 in Bastrop, Louisiana, the oldest of 10 children, several of whom had musical skills to varying degrees, helped by a mother who encouraged them to develop those skills. In the early forties, after a couple of moves, the family found themselves in Detroit after Mable’s father had travelled there to find work. High school over, she found herself a job in an insurance company which was run by Berry Gordy’s mother, Bertha, though I have to add that this is no more than a coincidence in this story. It also gives me the opportunity to say that the best account I have come across of Mable’s life story, particularly the early years, is contained within the Bill Dahl Ponderosa Stomp article, the link for which is within the main text. In certain respects, this differs from the Wiki version but my inclination is to go with the Dahl document given the high involvement of Mable herself.

According to Dahl/John, it wasn’t mother Bertha who introduced Mable to budding songwriter Berry, it was someone else altogether. But when she went to Berry’s house to rehearse, the pair of them discovered they had someone in common: Bertha. Way back then, Berry didn’t have a record company and couldn’t even drive: Mable found herself ferrying him around in the course of his wheeler-dealering. On his side, Berry acted as musical mentor for Mable and unofficial manager, which position was later made legal, though she changed manager after leaving Motown. On Berry’s side one would imagine that he saw in Mable, a potential female figurehead who would help to establish and grow his envisaged recording business.

We know from history and to a limited extent, the main text, that things didn’t work out like that. Yes, a female figurehead for Motown did appear and did drive forward sales and, in the process, enhanced the company’s recognition and reputation, but that person was Mary Wells until she left in 1964. We are also informed, via Mable herself (in the Bill Dahl article), that the camaraderie at Motown was great; “family” is the word she used. She used very similar words about her Stax experience and didn’t differentiate between the labels in this respect. She is also full of praise for members of the Stax house band, in particular, drummer Al Jackson.

One thing that Berry Gordy did make sure of was that Mable picked up real experience of singing prior to setting foot in a recording studio for him; hence the appearance on the Billie Holiday bill plus many other stage appearances. However, it was via the go-between of Etta James that Mable got herself onto the lower end of the bill on her brother’s shows – she wasn’t keen on making the approach. The appearances did go ahead and were successful to the extent that Willie started calling Mable back on stage at close of show time and the two would delight the audience with renditions of duets by, the then popular, Brook Benton and Dinah Washington.

2. There are differing reports as to when Mable took up a role with the Ray Charles’ Raelettes. The Wiki entry on the ladies has “(1966-1978, 1998)” i.e. contemporaneous with her Stax spell, But the more detailed portion on the Raelettes in the Ray Charles Video Museum has a more precise statement “Mable John joined Susaye Greene, Vernita Moss, Estella Yarbrough in March ’69”. The Wiki Mable John entry is different again, stating that she worked in the Raelettes during her period between Motown and Stax.

In the Bill Dahl article, Mable makes it very clear that she was invited, by Ray himself, to be lead singer (and later musical director) in/for the Raelettes in 1969. This fits with the Ray Charles Video Museum date. That year with Mable in her new role, the Raelettes had an R&B Chart hit with a remake of Joe Tex’s 1965 number I Want To (Do Everything For You) on Ray’s Tangerine label. During the timeframe the Raelettes toured independently of Ray.

3. Mable herself (from the Bill Dahl article), picks up the story again in the late seventies: “When I was called into the ministry, I heard that call standing onstage in Birmingham, Ala., onstage with Ray Charles.” And she didn’t do things by halves; she started studying both Hebrew and Greek so she could travel to Israel and study the Bible in its original form. She now heads up her own ministry in Los Angeles. In 1986, she set up a Community Outreach Program to End Homelessness. She has also written three inspirational novels (with co-author David Ritz). She even found time to appear in the 2007 film Honeydripper. Apparently, Ruth Brown was originally cast for the role of blues singer “Bertha Mae” but she died before filming started, so Mable stepped in with relatively little notice. This clip shows Mable singing in the film and talking about working with director John Sayles.

She hasn’t ignored music either. Discogs shows two albums for her: Where Can I Find Jesus in 1993 and Sanctified Blues released on her own label, Not On, in 2007 (and it’s on Spotify). She has even found time to appear at secular music events such as the reunion of the sixties-era Ray Charles band at the 1998 Chicago Blues Festival.

4. Would that there was some parallel existence within which someone, who’d probably come from the future, filmed Mable and Little Willie John on stage somewhere singing one of those duets they used to close the show with. There isn’t, of course, but what we do have is a record from Willie, entitled Dinner Date from 1957 and there’s a lady singing with him who is documented – in Leadbitter & Slaven’s “Blues Records 1943-1970”, and by highly regarded discographer, Michel Ruppli – as Mable John. This also gets a mention in Footnote #21 in the Little Willie John Toppermost from Cal Taylor and myself. Since then, I have noticed a Comment – see below – against the clip above which raises possible doubt about that identification though I haven’t found any verification of that Comment so am inclined to go with the ‘official’ version i.e that it was Mable.

“According to Willie John’s family this is NOT Mable John singing on this track with Willie. The record company gave them conflicting info about who it is singing here with LWJ.”

5. Singin’ Sammy Ward was an early Motown artist who had an R&B Chart hit with a Smokey Robinson number Who’s The Fool in 1961. In spite of several more releases he wasn’t able to repeat the success and left the label circa ’64/’65. There were more recordings for Groove City after which Sammy left the business. He was enticed back by British northern soul fans and there were further recordings, re-recordings and plenty of live appearances through the late eighties and nineties. He died in 1996.

6. Prior to Mable releasing Actions Speak Louder Than Words, the same song had been cut and released by a pre-Temptations David Ruffin earlier in the same year. The label it was issued on was Checkmate which, I am informed by the uploader of that track, was owned by Berry Gordy, his sister Anna and the Chess Brothers.

7. Within “Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story Of Stax Records”, author Rob Bowman has the following quote from Mable regarding the record Your Good Thing (Is About To End)”

“I enjoyed the song. I enjoyed the relief it gave me because I was in bondage. I really felt that my first husband had given me a raw deal and I was carrying round a lot of bitterness that no one knew about. That song relieved me of that bitterness to a degree. It was like getting something off my chest.”

8. I stumbled over a cover of Mable’s Don’t Hit Me No More (which was a fluke since Secondhandsongs hadn’t registered any). It was by Barbara Lynn, a lady well worth listening to, and was contained in her 2000 album Hot Night Tonight on Antone’s Records out of Austin, TX. This is it. Left-handed guitarist and chanteuse Barbara may not be as young as she was but she still packs a punch.

9. Prior to starting the research for this article, I was well aware that not too many people had recorded for both Motown and Stax but Mable was one. Richard Williams in the Guardian feature already mentioned, added some precision:

“Later she would become one of only two artists – the other being Kim Weston – to record for both Motown and Stax, the twin pillars of 1960s soul music.”

10. The only Stax Mable John track I’ve found outside of the single and Stay Out Of The Kitchen is the rather fine Problems which features Steve Cropper prominently in support. In order to find out if there were any other such tracks that I hadn’t found, I contacted Ace Records, UK distributor of Stax. Within a couple of hours, Dave Timperley of Ace got back to me to me with a list of all the Mable John tracks that had been issued in the UK and, no, Problems was the only one.

11. A number of readers will have picked on the Lorraine Motel in relation to a certain tragic event. Mable not only stayed in that hotel when she was in Memphis, she also stayed in the same room whenever possible. She discovered that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also selected that room in that hotel whenever he had to be in Memphis. Mable herself picks up the story in American Routes Shortcuts: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Well I was in town to record; I had to stay over another day. Dr. King was coming in the next day. The owners of the Lorraine Motel said to me, “Oh Miss John, do you mind since you’re leaving tomorrow anyway, getting out of the room very early and so we can get it ready for him and we’ll give you a room down the hall?” I said, “No I don’t mind!” I said, “It’ll give me a chance to say hello to him.””

Which she did, but:

“… by the time I arrived in Chicago and got off the plane, everybody in the airport was talking about Dr. King has been shot. I said, “That can’t be true, I just left him in Memphis.” And just that quick, that man’s life was gone.”

12. “It didn’t matter who he was up against, because he didn’t do it as a competitor. All these Baptist sisters would sit down at the front, and they would scream. We would laugh at them because we were kids, but they were serious. They would yell things like, ‘Sing, honey. Sing, child,’ and I often wondered what was going on in some of their minds. Maybe I didn’t need to know. But you know what? Sam never allowed it to distract him. If he saw he had your attention, he could sing directly to you and almost be whispering. And when he got through, you would feel that he was talking to no one else in the room but you. [But then] the whole building would go up in smoke.” Mable John on Sam Cooke (from “Dream Boogie” by Peter Guralnick)

13. I’ve had no success at finding any live clips of Mable singing in her heyday. However, I do have one from August 2008 in Italy which was televised. The occasion was the Porretta Soul Festival and the backing was from the Austin de Lone All Star Band. The song is Bad Water, another R&B hit for the Raelettes (in 1971) with Mable on the lead. It was co-written by Jackie DeShannon. I have to say that for a lady of 78, Mable sounds mighty good to me.

 

 

 

Mable John official website

Mable John at Motown Records

Mable John at Stax Records

Mable John at 45cat

Mable John biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Jackie DeShannon, Fats Domino, “5” Royales, Billie Holiday, Little Willie John, Barbara Lynn, Otis Redding, Temptations, Dinah Washington, Stevie Wonder

TopperPost #994

5 Comments

  1. Cal Taylor
    Nov 10, 2021

    A top Toppermost about a top artist with a great voice. Thanks, Dave, for highlighting Mable in your very informative piece. She was a vastly underrated performer who certainly deserved much more success than she achieved as a singer but seems to have led a fulfilling life. I hope Mable believes that too.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Nov 11, 2021

    Such a great singer and ‘Your Good Thing (Is About To End)’ is such a fine record. An excellent Toppermost as always.
    On another point, re footnote 4, I checked the Little Willie John biography by Susan Whitall and it states that “Mable even spent several years as part of Willie’s act, singing a duet with him on the record Dinner Date”.

    • Dave Stephens
      Nov 11, 2021

      Cal and Andrew, thanks for your kind words. And Andrew, Cal and I exchanged mails on the subject of Dinner Date and as a result I altered that footnote to push the probability factor to the story of her presence on the record being true but still allowing an element of doubt because of the reference to “Willie John’s family” in the YouTube Comment that I quote.

  3. David Lewis
    Nov 11, 2021

    ‘I love you more than words can say’ is stunning. I can’t tell you why… it’s nothing special musically. But by goodness it’s great.

    • Dave Stephens
      Nov 11, 2021

      I know what you mean. The song doesn’t have anything overly marvellous about it but it’s what Mable and the Stax team do with the base material. I feel that way about a whole load of the previously unreleased ballads on “Stay Out Of The Kitchen” – others could easily have made the Ten so I’d highly recommend dipping into the set. And that’s not to denigrate the more uptempo tracks; they just got squeezed out.

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