Music Great Mable John on Ray Charles' Saving Grace

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LOS ANGELES - Singer Ray Charles pioneered soul music and helped to integrate country and pop music in the 1960s. The Academy Award winning movie, "Ray," told his life story, but it failed to include one powerful force in Charles' life -- a woman named Mable John.

Mable John is music legend.  Motown Records signed her as its first female solo artist in 1959. At 80 years and counting, John still performs around the world.

She spoke with CBN News at her home in Los Angeles, just days before leaving the country for a concert. She can still remember recording her very first record.

"That first 45, which they no longer make," John laughed. "It was called, 'Who Wouldn't Love a Man Like That.'"

John often calls herself a "sanctified blues singer." But she does more than just sing the blues. In fact, her industry nickname is "Story Teller."

"Most of the songs that I did at Motown were taken from some life experience of mine or some conversation Berry Gordy and I had together about my husband or about a boyfriend and about all kinds of things that related to my life," John explained.

Colorful Life

John's life is a colorful story. As the oldest of 10 children, she grew up in a family of singers in Detroit, Mich. Her brother, Little Willie John, penned the tune "You Give Me Fever." The song was first made famous by Peggy Lee and later by Madonna.

As teenager, John worked for Berry Gordy's mother. But she did not meet the famed founder of Motown until she was as an adult.

She was a church choir director, but running numbers on the side.

"The moment I said, 'I am going to have a coach and I am going to sing and I am going to make records,' they (the church) just said, 'well you can't do that,'" she recalled. "'That is of the devil.'"

"What none of us really realized that my whole lifestyle was of the devil. I could go to jail for what I was doing," she said.

She left the gambling life behind when she signed the record deal. She also rededicated her life and voice to the Lord, who blessed her with the gift of song.

John also promised God she'd share her faith, even in an industry plagued with temptation and trouble.

"Talk about the grace of God," she told CBN News. "God rescued me from myself. They always made like a joyful fun of me because I sound so gospel."

"And they knew, and I guess I knew too, whatever the seed is that is in you, that is the seed that comes out," she said.

John left Motown in 1964 and headed south to Memphis, Tenn., where she joined the other big label in popular black music at the time, Stax Records.

Her first day on the job, she and two legendary producers made music out of her real-life tale of drinking, gambling, and a cheating husband.

"As I was telling that story to Isaac Hayes and David Porter, we started turning everything around and making verses out of it," she recalled. "And it turned into a classic that is still the biggest seller that I have ever had and it is called, 'Your Good Thing is About to Come to An End,'"

Leading Ray Charles to Christ

Personal pain nearly ended John's music career in 1968. Her famous brother, Little Willie John, died in jail. He was doing time for murder. It took the legendary Ray Charles two years to pull John back onto the music stage after Little Willie's death.

Charles made John the leader of his back-up group, "The Raelettes." She then traveled the world singing her stories with them.

However, there is one story she has not shared. It was also overlooked in the major motion picture about Charles's life and struggle to overcome years of drug addiction.

John led Charles to Christ. But it is not as simple as it sounds. Charles was not receptive when John mentioned Jesus Christ the first time they met.

That was a conversation she still remembers clearly.

"He said, 'John, let me explain something to you.' He said, 'I love God. I just don't have the right kind of understanding or feeling about Jesus,'" she said. "I said, 'You don't, why?'"

Charles's answer could be traced to his childhood. His brother died, he lost his sight, and then his mother died.

"I never got over it as a child, here I am as a child. I don't have anybody. Why would Jesus take the only person from me that I have? Why would Jesus take my mother?" he asked John.

"God is not a killer. Jesus didn't take your mother. He received her," she responded.

"I said, 'He will receive all of us,'" John recalled.

Sobering Faith

In the years following that conversation, the two often studied scripture together while on the concert circuit.

Their friendship and faith grew stronger after John left the Raelets for the seminary.

That faith is what kept Charles sober. John still shares her faith today, preaching and teaching to Southern California's poor and homeless with her Joy In Jesus ministry.

"You don't have the ability to change yourself. You are not God. God's going to do that," she said. "What you do have the ability to do is to come to him."

John is also teaching music to the next generation through the Stax Academy, where she often performs with many of those teenagers on stage in Washington, D.C.

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Efrem Graham

Efrem Graham

News Anchor & Reporter

Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.