In an early scene of John Sayles’s recently released Honeydripper, a blues singer performs in a nearly empty ramshackle club. She’s hunched and careworn, but not without a certain regal quality. Accompanied sparely by piano and harmonica, her voice has a bottomless, meditative calm, even as she teases her man, asking him to choose her over booze. With the exception of a few low-key drunks, her audience consists of the club’s anxious owner and a nattily dressed man, who looks upon her with reverence.
This is the Honeydripper saloon–source of the movie’s title–and these are the hard times it’s facing. The aging master, Bertha Mae, has become a commercial liability. Her old-timey style is still respected, but she no longer draws a crowd the way the blaring jukebox down the road does. The club she’d headlined is saved only when a mysterious, messianic young man plugs in his guitar and brings together electricity and human presence. On a modest scale, Honeydripper dramatizes the crucial moment in black pop when the music plugged in, got more insistently rhythmic and reflected a cultural shift toward an urban environment.
Like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Buena Vista Social Club, Honeydripper is more than a handsome film about musicians. It’s an immensely appealing total package, one with serious crossover potential. The Honeydripper All-Stars have already hit the festival circuit to rave reviews; the band includes young ax-man Gary Clark Jr., Delta revivalist Keb’ Mo’, former Howlin’ Wolf saxophonist Eddie Shaw, harpist Arthur Lee Williams and keyboardist Henderson Huggins (whose hands play those of Danny Glover’s piano-playing club owner). It also features Dr. Mable John, the versatile vocalist who nails the part of Bertha Mae. Anyone who sees the film, or catches the All-Stars live, would assume that John–like her bandmates–is a veteran of the blues scene. But onscreen, John is acting more than reliving her past. She can belt out the blues on cue, but her unscripted place in history is as a forgotten trooper of the 1960s soul era, a vocalist who cut a Zelig-like path through an epoch while leaving some minor musical triumphs behind.
John was born in 1930, in Bastrop, Louisiana. Like so many African-Americans of her generation, she eventually found her way to a big city up North–in her case, Detroit. After high school she worked for an insurance agency run by the mother of future Motown mogul Berry Gordy. Her younger brother, Little Willie John–best known for the original version of “Fever”–was a star by the mid-’50s. Little Willie’s smooth mix of exuberance and anguish is arguably the flashpoint of soul, the point at which R&B’s raw timbre discovered soaring lyrical poignancy; it’s hard to imagine Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye without Little Willie. While hardly the force of nature that her brother was, Mable could sound tough and coy in much the same way.
Although she logged the requisite hours with her church choir, John’s musical career didn’t begin in earnest until 1959, when Gordy brought her into the studio for “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That.” This track, recorded for the fledgling Tamla label, made her the first female artist to record for the Motown group. Released in 1960, “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That” had easy-swinging horns, hand claps and singalong appeal, as did follow-up tracks like “(I Guess There’s) No Love” and “Actions Speak Louder Than Words.” John found her way onto package shows with Jackie Wilson, her brother and Etta James. But compared with the shimmering harmonies and sculpted solos of vocal groups like the Marvelettes and the Supremes, John was just a little too robust. As she later put it, “I’m not a pop singer.” She continued to record for Gordy until 1963. But all of her tracks stayed in the vaults except a 1963 remake of “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That.”