Mable John, the former Motown and Stax rhythm and blues recording artist has now gone into acting where she co-stars with Danny Glover in "Honeydripper."
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The Detroit News
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She didn't go looking for it. It happened quite by accident. But now singer Mable John, who recorded for Motown Records, then Stax, can add "actress" to her resume, after appearing alongside Danny Glover in the new, Southern blues-infused John Sayles film "Honeydripper."
For this former Detroiter and big sister of the fabled John clan out of Detroit's north end that also produced R&B icon Little Willie John, a movie career at age 77 happened the way most things have for her -- by chance.
"Everything that's happened in my life, the people approached me," John said from her Los Angeles home last week. That career has included a stint at Motown, at Stax Records in Memphis, and as head Raelette for Ray Charles.
"Everything except Berry Gordy (and Motown). My boyfriend approached Berry Gordy for me. Everything else was someone approaching me, thinking I was suitable. The hand of God was upon it."
R&B singer Ruth Brown was already cast as blues singer "Bertha Mae" (named by director John Sayles after the blues song), but when Brown fell ill, Sayles put out the call for Mable John, and her friends Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples helped track her down.
Sayles, whose film roster includes "Return of the Secaucus Seven," "Eight Men Out" and "Lone Star," will appear in Ann Arbor Friday for a special screening of "Honeydripper" at the Michigan Theater to benefit the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
Set in Alabama in 1950, "Honeydripper" tells the story of Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Glover), owner of a failing blues club, who tries to jump-start his business one last time with a big show, just as jump and country blues was giving way to rock 'n' roll and R&B.
John plays Bertha Mae, a legendary blues singer who is in residence at the Honeydripper Lounge. Purvis lets Bertha Mae go and tries to hire a big-name act for one last attempt to save his club. That act falls through, and a young hotshot electric guitarist he rejected is pressed into service.
As a blues singer whose heyday was back in Bessie Smith's time, John is dressed in vintage '20s clothing as Bertha Mae. "I look like Betty Boop!" John said.
End of an era
The movie is set in 1950 because Sayles felt it was an interesting time, when music started to change because of the solid-body electric guitars that were starting to come out.
"I was just thinking, when was that moment when the musicians realized, 'Wait a minute, something's happening here and what we do for a living is never going to be the same,' " Sayles said by phone from L.A. "It had to happen when they heard that solid body electric guitar for the first time. They realized that from now on, that lead guitar is more portable, it's louder than the piano this is going to change everything."
The film's cast is almost entirely black, and to publicize it, Sayles is moving beyond the obvious; going to college towns and black churches to promote the film. He's also got a "Honeydripper" band playing blues festivals, sometimes with John singing.
In the film, she sings the title song, as well as "I Don't Know How She Done It" and "Things About to Come My Way."
Sayles explains how John took over the role after Brown fell ill.
"I knew (John) more as a soul singer than a blues singer. But she very heroically stepped in with 10 days' notice, and learned the music," Sayles said. "She didn't even change the key."
That was important, because backing tracks had already been recorded for the songs Bertha Mae sings, with Brown doing the vocals. The filmmakers were able to strip Brown's voice off, and record John's voice singing with the track.
The singer had an immediate, emotional reaction when she heard her friend's voice on the original tracks.
"When I went to the Apollo Theater in New York for the first time, to perform with my brother (Little Willie John), Ruth Brown gave me the first professional gowns that I ever owned, a whole wardrobe of gowns," John said. "She said she wanted me to look as good as Willie looked onstage."
Ruth Brown never recovered from her illness. She died a year ago, not long after "Honeydripper" was finished.
Singing for Berry Gordy
Mable John was born in Louisiana. The John family lived in Arkansas for several years, then they moved to Detroit in the '40s, where Mable attended Duffield Elementary, Cleveland Intermediate and Pershing High School.
Her first job, as a teenager, was helping Bertha Gordy in her insurance business. The teen had already been singing with the John family gospel group the United Five, but her secular music breakthrough was with Gordy's son, Berry Gordy Jr., who managed Mable in the late '50s and accompanied her on the piano.
"I was convinced that if Berry Gordy didn't play piano for me, I could not sing," John said, laughing. "Until one time when I got ready to open for Billie Holiday at the Flame Showbar, and he did not show up. He did that on purpose.
That was my beginning and my foundation, because he taught me to do whatever it is you do, and not depend upon anyone else. If I had not had the rigid training of Berry Gordy; his mother, my own mother and father ahead of that and their belief in God ahead of that, I would not have been ready for a Stax Records, I would not have been ready for a Ray Charles, I would not have been ready for a 'Honeydripper' movie."
John had several singles on Gordy's first label Tamla, but her sound was too bluesy and mature for Motown. It was just right for Stax Records in Memphis, where she landed in the '60s and scored with a Top 10 R&B hit penned by Isaac Hayes/David Porter titled "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)," in 1966.
In 1968, she went on the road with Ray Charles, taking over as director of his back-up group the Raelettes. In 1977 she left to launch the Joy in Jesus Ministries and a homeless program in Los Angeles that continues to this day. Married and divorced a few times along the way, John is the mother of four sons.
This isn't the first time a song by a member of Detroit's John family is in a Sayles film. He used "My Love Is" by Little Willie John in his 1997 movie "Lone Star."
"'My Love Is' was a song that never got to be the big hit that (Willie John's original version of) 'Fever' did, but it had this great haunting quality to it, it's very romantic," Sayles said. "You just don't hear enough of him today."
As if music and movies aren't enough, John has been involved in this year's 50th anniversary of Stax Records.
"We wanted to raise $50 million for every year of Stax, for the Soulsville museum in Memphis," John said. "It's so we can keep our legacy alive, because that's a big order."
John also launched a mystery writing career recently, with the help of her friend, music biographer David Ritz (Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles and Jimmy Scott).
Ritz and John worked out a series about Albertina Merci, a blues singer turned evangelist who solves crimes. There is "Sanctified Blues," "Stay Out of the Kitchen" (the name of a John song) and now "Love Tornado" (also named after a John song), which comes out in June.
There also have been John CD re-releases to accompany the books, on Fantasy/Concord, notably of "Stay Out of the Kitchen."
It's a late career blitz for John, who says she feels thankful, and blessed.
"I was right in the doorway of a lot of things that were brand new," John says. "Motown, a brand new company; Stax Records in Memphis, a brand new company. I was at the beginning of a lot of things, and I was walking upstairs with everything I've done."
You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall@det news.com.