Mable John is a blues vocalist and is credited with being the first female singer signed by Berry Gordy to Motown’s Tamla label, giving her the title, “the first lady of Motown.”
John was born in Bastrop, Louisiana, she was the oldest of nine children. While still a young child, John’s parents relocated the family to Arkansas. Her father found work at a paper mill. However, the family moved again in 1941 to Detroit for a better job for her father.
She attended Cleveland Intermediate School, and then Pershing High School. After graduating, she took a job as an insurance representative at Friendship Mutual Insurance Agency, a company run by Berry Gordy’s mother, Bertha.
John left the company to attend Lewis Business College for two years. She later ran into Mrs. Gordy again, who told her that her son, Berry Gordon, was in the music business and looking for talented people to record. She later began working with Gordy.
Gordy began coaching her and would accompany John on piano at local engagements. This continued until 1959, when John performed at the Flame Show bar on John R Street at the last show that Billie Holiday did in Detroit, just weeks before Holiday’s death. The same year, John began recording for Gordy. First, she was signed to United Artists, but nothing was released there. Eventually, she became one of the first artists signed to Tamla, Gordy’s own label.
John released her first Tamla single in 1960, “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That?,” a romantic blues number, to no success, she followed with “No Love” in June of that year. Gordy soon moved away from early blues artists. John continued for a while as a background singer, Gordy dissolved her contract in 1962. In 1986, John founded a charity that feeds the homeless in Los Angeles, Joy Community Outreach.