Ponderosa Stomp, the New Orleans roots music festival that presents significant, influential musicians who aren’t necessarily household names, strikes gold this weekend with Mable John.
John’s many claims to fame include being the sister of Little Willie John. In 1956, the late soul pioneer released the sizzling original recording of “Fever.”
Big sister Mable, a coach for choirs throughout Michigan, followed her brother into R&B at the urging of her then-boyfriend.
“He kept saying, ‘You’re driving all over, coaching choirs for free! Why don’t use your talent and make some money!’ ” John said last week from Los Angeles.
That boyfriend happened to Berry Gordy’s barber. The founder of Motown Records, Gordy became John’s mentor. She subsequently developed successful careers as a performer, recording artist, music publisher and leader of Ray Charles’ backup group, The Raelettes.
A native of the small city of Bastrop in northeast Louisiana, John moved to Detroit with her family at 12. In the Motor City, she became the first female artist Gordy signed to his Tamla label.
In the mid-’60s, John recorded for Memphis, Tennessee, soul label Stax Records. Following her brother’s death in 1968, John accepted Charles’ invitation to lead The Raelettes.
A month from her 85th birthday, John continues to sing throughout the world. She’s also pastor of the Joy in Jesus Ministry in Los Angeles and the founder of Joy Community Outreach, a charity for the homeless.
John’s appearances at The Ponderosa Stomp — she’s speaking at the event’s music history conference Thursday and performing Friday — are more than a decade in the making. She’s honoring a contract she signed in 2005 before Hurricane Katrina but couldn’t fulfill after the floodwaters engulfed New Orleans.
“The city was shut down,” John said. “But I promised Dr. Ira (Padnos, Ponderosa Stomp producer) that I would make good on the contract.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, John performed in New Orleans with her late brother and later with Charles. She made multiple appearances at the Municipal Auditorium, for instance, the site of many all-star package shows.
“When Katrina messed up the Municipal Auditorium, it hurt me,” John said. “I could visualize it so well. It struck me so bad. And I didn’t know if they were going to bring the city back.”
Moved to act after the flood, John’s charity sent 25,000 aid packages to displaced New Orleanians.
“So I feel tied to New Orleans and Katrina,” she said. “To me, it’s just a blessing to be able to come there now.”
Her life has been flooded by blessings, John said.
“It’s a gift from God,” she said. “Because I couldn’t have done that on my own. ”
John and her brother, Willie, came from a musical family.
“The Johns loved to sing,” she said. “It was my brother, Willie, who wanted to sing professionally. That was never been my desire. I just took advantage of good opportunities.”
John calls her 1968 decision to join the Charles organization one of the best choices of her life. For more than 10 years, she directed all aspects of The Raelettes and worked as the group’s lead singer.
“As an artist, Ray was the best because music was his life,” she said. “Working with him, his days had no beginning and no end. He could work around the clock.”
John left road work with Charles in the mid-1970s to study for the ministry.
“I saw so much hurt and pain as I traveled,” she said of the move. “I said, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ ”
But John’s association with Charles continued after she stopped touring with him.
“My sons and myself, we did a lot of writing for him,” she said of her profitable publishing venture with Charles. “My contract with him never ended. Ray Charles’ company and my company share 52 songs.”
In 1994, John received her doctorate of divinity. The achievement made her Dr. John.
“So my life took its own turn through my studying the Bible,” she said. “But I still go out and sing to the people and talk to the people, because I can see masses of people when I perform. I have the best of both worlds.”