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The Lessons in the Music

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Beats
Dec 3rd, 2018

During the evening of November 3rd, a crowd buzzed between food, drink and conversation waiting for the screening of filmmaker Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom – a film starring Dr. Mable John. The historic Rose Theatre in downtown Bastrop welcomed the singer’s homecoming.

article by VANELIS RIVERA and photography by ANDREW BAILEY

“I didn’t know I was a senior citizen until a month ago,” John chimes matter-of-factly to a crowd at the Rose Theatre at her homecoming in Bastrop, Louisiana. For the first time, John celebrates her birthday at her birthplace. To the elderly thinking they have to find a place to die, she asserts proudly: “Life begins at eighty-eight.” The sheer gumption of her words and their sharp wisdom tower over her almost five-foot frame. I learned quickly that you don’t just write Dr. Mable John’s story; that’s in her charge, she says. Instead, you listen, learn and strive to also become an example. Stories pour out of her like songs, sharing lessons from a past that we can all learn from.

John’s musical upbringing began at the family kitchen, where her siblings sang together, pots and pans served as instruments, her father strummed guitar, and her mother sang along. One point of her progressing career involved touring with her brother, Little Willie John, a blues singer who is considered by most to be one of the most overlooked soul artists of his time. Although her family didn’t pay as much attention to her music, John wasn’t bothered. She wasn’t chasing big lights.

Sometimes only known as Willie’s sister, as he would introduce her on stage, her talent and poise still caught the eye of some of the most prolific artists of our time, namely, Ray Charles. In many ways, her forty years with Charles further shaped her already astute musical sense in art and enterprise. “My contract with him never ran out,” she shares. Charles knew what he wanted when he asked her to lead his girls, telling her during the job interview: “America don’t know what their artists are, because they don’t have the right music appreciation.” He wasn’t looking for another background singer, because he knew she wasn’t that. He needed a leader. Charles sought out John shortly after coming out of rehab. Knowing this, John made clear the kind of environment she expected, telling Charles, “I only get high on prayer.” Charles didn’t want anything around him that would identify him with that past, and John became a steady hand.

John is a woman of faith, not one to ascribe coincidence to mere probability, and she’s not afraid to share it. Years after famed American singer Otis Redding’s plane went down in Madison, Wisconsin, the only survivor, trumpet player Ben Cauley, opened up to John about the crash. With tears in his eyes he said to her, “I thought I was gonna’ drown, because I don’t know how to swim. But all I got to thinking, if I survived that crash then I can hold on to this branch.” John replied, “You got to live, because I’m not through recording, and I need you to play the trumpet.” She told this story to Ray Charles while explaining to him why she wouldn’t get on his private plane: “People that own private planes and with money don’t follow the rules. That’s why Otis Redding’s plane went down. Someone didn’t follow the rules.” Telling this story with piercing eyes and a cautionary brow raised. John often repeats herself for emphasis. It works. Each repetition has a distinct flavor and an aftertaste that lingers. “People that own stuff don’t feel like they have to obey anybody’s rules. But your disobedience can cause you your life. I don’t smoke or drink. I don’t condemn people that do. It’s their mouth and their belly. But I got a lot to do, and I want to be alive to do it.” She takes a pause. “That’s why I don’t fly private planes.”

Lessons like these abound in her captivating storytelling, a characteristic she undoubtedly inherited from her father, who would narrate his experiences working in Bastrop, painting a picture in her mind that would draw her to the small town. She grew proud of those stories. Knowing that her father wanted her to identify with Bastrop, she considers her homecoming as “making good” on her father’s memory. He would tell her: “Don’t ever allow anyone to take your name from you. Give them all of your name. You don’t own anything but your name.” Bastrop is part of that name, and she wants her history to become their history; in the end, Bastrop’s history weaved its way into hers as well.

Enter, the historic Rose Theatre in downtown Bastrop. During the evening of November 3rd, a crowd buzzed between food, drink and conversation waiting for the screening of filmmaker Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom—a film starring John. Meanwhile, Mayor Cotton intently took in the wine velvet curtains and teal cushioned seats. It’s the first time he has stood on the ground floor. The last seat he occupied was a screechy wood seat located at the balcony of the Rose, the colored-only section. It’s a surreal scene, but one that John and many of her musical contemporaries were all too familiar with. When John played at Jackson College in Mississippi, they put a rope down the aisle dividing whites and blacks.
John has never been oblivious of the state of affairs and is keenly aware of the underprivileged, especially children. When she toured with her brother Willie, they would gather the children that couldn’t afford to see them. Willie would greet them then buy their tickets; sometimes nearly thirty kids would enthusiastically flood the front seats. “I want them to get what they came for,” Willie would remark. Such experiences solidified John’s interest in working with kids. “My mother had so many children. I’m not happy unless I’m in a crowd,” says John. She wants future generations to stand on her shoulders. “What do you want to be? What do you want to identify with?” She’ll ask curiously. “I want the ear of every child in this town and every senior in this town.” Her pointed reasons for gravitating toward those groups are simple: “People don’t have time for the youth, so we lose them. They have counted seniors out because they don’t think they are fruitful.” Guided by ministry and service, she never shies away from giving and embodying love. In one of the nine schools she visited during the three days of her visit, a young girl approached John and complimented her vintage stud earrings. John replied, “Oh you like them? Here, have them.” John’s unreal drive for service is like a song—honest, spirit-filled and impactful.

“I’m here to take the music back,” John claims, describing music’s divine and pervasive quality. Quoting James Brown’s lyrics, “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open the door. I’ll get it myself,” she ties a sense of independence to the freedom of creating music and its boundless nature: ”It has no color, it has no age, it has no territory, and it has no boundaries.” Songs should be written to last one hundred years, she asserts, warning contemporary songwriters against only seeing where they are right now. Only happy songs that are uncategorizable by genre and hold a message, a story, of what’s in our hearts, survive throughout generations.

“Country and classical music are the longest lasting musics until Mable John got here,” she humours. Storytelling is the duty, the moral, of universal songs. John declares, “When you write a song, you must write an everlasting story.” She wrote her song “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” as a story about marital grievances that she was unable to share with her husband directly, which starts: “I don’t have to beg you to hold me. ‘Cause somebody else will.”

“I love people. I love music,” she tells a group of ULM students, faculty, and staff. Stressing the importance of learning the business of the show, she shares how her parents didn’t have money, but they had knowledge. When her brother got signed, the whole family of Johns sat around their kitchen table and thoroughly analyzed Willie’s contract. She laughs while recounting her love for “running money down” at Willie’s gigs. “You only have a hit when the check comes,” her father would say. Songs need birth certificates just like we do, John says, emphasizing the importance of reading the fine print. Too often, early great talents died penniless, and John did not intend to die broke. Advice from greats like Billie Holiday, who John opened for, is relentlessly shared with aspiring musicians: 1. Learn your craft well. 2. Work on yourself—“You will find your own self in what you do.” 3. Do what you do well and without seeking approval. 4. Know when you have done enough. She stresses that it’s a mistake to put weight on fame. Instead, become prolific by not allowing anyone to tell you what you can’t do—advice John embodies pristinely. “Music isn’t yours until you make it yours. I learned that part from Ray Charles. Now when I sing, it has to pay me.”
John ends most of her talks with the same two words: “Call me.” She repeats her number twice, encouraging the crowd to leave a detailed message, if she doesn’t answer. “Do good work and let the work speak for you,” her father would tell her. Taking his words to heart, John embedded her music with the emotions in her soul to provide lessons in the music.
Mayor Henry Cotton of Bastrop, Louisiana calls the return of Dr. Mable John a “royal homecoming” and declared November 3rd Dr. Mable John Day.