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Blues Singer Mable John: Big Plans for her Hometown of Bastrop

Mable John, “Motown’s first singing lady” is a Bastrop, Louisiana native. The eldest of 10 children, she became the first female signed by Berry Gordy to Motown’s Tamla Records.

When she was just a baby, her family moved from Bastrop to Cullendale, Arkansas where her father worked at a paper mill.

At the age of 12, Mable moved with the family to Detroit and graduated from high school. John  began working at an insurance company managed by Berry Gordy’s mother. Influenced by the musical success of her brother, "Little Willie" John, Mable John began pursuing her own music career, and  soon opened for Billie Holiday.

John toured the south with some of the biggest names of that era: Billie Holliday, Jimmy Reed, Shirley and Lee, B.B. King, Sam Cooke, The Flamingos and others.

In 1960, John recorded her first single with Tamla Records called “Who Wouldn't Love a Man Like That?” The record had little success. By 1962, her contract had ended with Berry Gordy. 

John then began her solo career with Stax Records in 1966, releasing the single "Your Good Thing Is About To End.” The single became a hit and reached number six on the R&B charts. 

After performing as a solo artist for 17 years, she joined Ray Charles and became a performing member and director of the Raelettes.

John left Stax Records and began venturing into Christian ministry,  returning only occasionally to the studio.

John credits most of her musical success to the teachings of her father, who instilled values within her and her siblings at a very young age. “My father kept pointing  us to what  we  could  be  and  what  we  are on our way to be, and that nobody can hinder you from becoming  that. So that was our only concern.” John said.

Redirecting her focus to the greater good, John established Joy Community Outreach, a charity that feeds the homeless in Los Angeles. In 1993, John received her Doctor of Divinity degree from the South Los Angeles Christian Ministry Center.  

Recently, John has made plans to give back to her community. She wants to start an educational center for youth in Bastrop, while preserving her hometown's history. Dr. Mable John is not only one of northeast Louisiana’s profound blues musicians, but she is also an advocate for growth within her community.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the John family lived in Log Cabin, Louisiana, before relocating to Cullendale, Arkansas.

Byway Blues is produced with the generous support of Washington Wine and Spirits, the Entergy Charitable Foundation, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.