Soul legend earns her screen time
Working with unknown actors isn’t unusual for John Sayles. The resourceful filmmaker has made a 16-film career of it. The difference on Honeydripper is that, while many of the cast members haven’t appeared onscreen before, the musicians Sayles shrewdly plugged into key support roles are hardly unknowns.
Along with 24-year-old Austin scene sensation Gary Clark Jr., who plays hotshot guitarist Sonny Blake, you’ll recognize singer/songwriter Keb’ Mo’, Howlin’ Wolf saxophone sideman Eddie Shaw and harp honker deluxe Arthur Lee Williams.
Perhaps most notably of all, the character of past-her-prime blues belter Bertha Mae Spivey is masterfully handled by soul great Mable John. Known to some as the sister of hugely influential R&B star Little Willie John, the spirited singer dubbed “Able Mable” was the first woman artist signed by future Motown chief Berry Gordy Jr. to his fledgling Tamla operation. If you listen closely to the track I’m Finally Through With You on 2004’s My Name Is Mable (Spectrum) retrospective disc, you can hear the pre-fame Supremes providing background vocals.
However, it took a bold move South to Stax in Memphis for John to record what became her best-known songs, including the top-10 soul smash Your Good Thing Is About To End, the jaw-dropping Don’t Hit Me No More (written by Joe Tex under his wife’s name!) and the funky-fine Running Out, which can be heard on the Stay Out Of The Kitchen (Stax) retrospective.
When Stax ran into financial trouble, John wisely split and was quickly snapped up by Ray Charles, who hired her to lead his Raelettes and compose new material for him to record.
Now the pastor of the non-denominational Joy in Jesus Ministry and best-selling novelist of the Albertina Merci series, Dr. Mable John admits that the idea of acting in her first Hollywood film at the age of 77 was daunting. But she got some unexpected direction from her old friend, the original R&B queen, Ruth Brown.
Unbeknownst to John, it seems that sassy R&B scorcher Brown – whose string of chart smashes during the 50s helped build the Atlantic label, which she later sued for unpaid royalties – was the singer Sayles originally had in mind when creating the role of Bertha Mae Spivey. He even had Brown voice the demo versions of the songs he’d written for the character to sing in the film. Sadly, Brown died of a stroke on November 17, 2006, before shooting began for Honeydripper.
“At first,” recalls John from her Los Angeles office, “I wasn’t exactly sure how John Sayles wanted me to play Bertha Mae Spivey. I had a fear of falling on my face in front of all the actors. Then something happened just as we were about to start film – I thought I saw a lady that looked like Ruth Brown standing on the floor. When I looked again, she was gone, but I believe Ruth stayed with me in spirit the whole time, because after that I felt calm and comfortable in doing whatever I needed to do. The character became me.”
Another great singer also inspired John: jazz legend Billie Holiday. John’s first big break in show business was an opening spot for Holiday’s week-long engagement at Detroit’s Flame Showbar in 1959. It turned out to be Lady Day’s final bow.
“I took pieces of everything I learned from everyone who had a part in my development, including Billie Holiday. She told me, ‘Honey, you can make it in this business, but you need to know when you’ve given enough, and you’ve got to have the guts to walk away. I didn’t know when to quit, and I paid for it.’
“Berry Gordy Jr. gave me the foundation to become the performer I am. Stax gave me the opportunity to develop my own voice as a singer and songwriter. Ray Charles showed me how to be a performer, and Billie Holiday made me realize the importance of knowing when enough is enough.”
Considering how John’s colourful career neatly connects the dots in the development of rhythm and blues music in America – and the amazing contrast provided by the very different trajectory of her talented but troubled sibling Little Willie John – you’d think Hollywood heavyweights would be fighting for the rights to turn her incredible story into a major motion picture.
Evidently, the blockbuster concept hasn’t yet occurred to anyone.
“I agree – that would be a wonderful idea for a film. I’d love for something like that to be done by John Sayles, but I don’t know if he’s even considered it,” she says. “We’ve never discussed the subject. But I really enjoyed doing Honeydripper with John, and I’m praying I’ll have a chance to work under his direction again.”
Soul singer turned pastor Mable John reveals how she came to start writing novels in her 70s
Evidently, she's also considering writing a biographical account of her life with her late R&B star brother, Little Willi John
Recent video of Mable John and the Honeydripper All-Star Band performing "Your Real Good Thing." The group was the house band in the John Sayles' film Honeydripper.