Unsung Heroes of Soul: Erma Franklin and Mable John

by Dean Farrell

As host of “The Soul Express,” I play the biggest names in 1960s and ‘70s-era soul music. I also mix in the many great soul artists who did not necessarily become household names but were no less talented. This month’s column features two acts about whom I found relatively scant information.


Erma Franklin was the older sister of Aretha and the originator of “Piece of My Heart.”

She was born in Shelby, Mississippi, on March 13, 1938, and grew up in Detroit. Her father was the Reverend C.L. Franklin of the New Bethel Baptist Church. When Erma was ten years old, her parents separated. Her mother, Barbara, took Erma’s half-brother Vaughn with her to Buffalo, New York, while Rev. Franklin kept their daughters: Erma, Aretha, and Carolyn. Barbara died in 1952.

During her childhood, Erma and her sisters sang at their father’s church. While attending Northern High School, she formed a Rhythm & Blues vocal group called the Cleopatrettes. She spent two years after high school touring with her father’s gospel group and later studied Business at Clark College (now known as Clark Atlanta University). On the weekends, she performed in an Atlanta nightclub. Erma later married one Thomas Garrett and had two children with him.

Her recording career began in 1961, when she signed with Epic Records. She had several singles out on the label, as well as an album, Her Name Is Erma (1962). When Aretha Franklin became a recording artist, Erma frequently sang back-up vocals on her songs—most notably “Respect.”

By 1967, Erma was on the New York-based Shout label, where she worked with songwriter-producer Bert Berns. Her 1967 recording of “Piece of My Heart” hit #10 on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues Singles chart and crossed over to the pop market at #62. In 1992, it was used in an ad for Levi’s jeans in England. This led to the song’s reissue in that country, where it got to #9. Still, the best-known “Piece of My Heart” is the 1968 version by Big Brother & The Holding Company, with lead vocals by Janis Joplin.

While none of Franklin’s subsequent Shout releases duplicated her initial success, the label did release an LP on her, 1969’s Soul Sister. It grazed Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart at #199.

By the middle 1970s, Erma Franklin had left the music business. She spent twenty-five years working at the Boysville Holy Cross Community Center in Detroit, helping homeless and disadvantaged minority children. She died of lung cancer on September 7, 2002, at age 64.

In 2015, the RockBeat reissue label put out the CD, The Electric Flag Featuring Erma Franklin—Live 1968.

Charted singles:

“Piece of My Heart” (1967) R&B #10, Pop #62

“Gotta Find Me a Lover (24 Hours a Day)” (1969) R&B #40

Other notable Erma Franklin recordings include “What Kind of Girl,” “I Don’t Want No Momma’s Boy,” “Abracadabra,” “It’s Over,” “Big Boss Man,” “Open Up Your Soul,” “I’m Just Not Ready For Love,” “The Right to Cry,” “Saving My Love For You,” and “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder).”


Mable John was Motown’s first female recording act.

She was born in Barstrop, Louisiana, on November 3, 1930, the eldest of nine children. Her siblings included the 1950s Rhythm & Blues star, Little Willie John (“All Around the World,” “Fever,” “Talk To Me”). When Mable was quite young, the family moved to Cullendale, Arkansas, where her father worked in a paper mill.

When the man found a better job, the Johns moved to Detroit in 1941. After high school, Mable worked for the Friendship Mutual Insurance Company. It was run by Bertha Gordy, mother of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. John would end up leaving the company and spending two years at Lewis Business College. She later bumped into Mrs. Gordy, who told John that her son Berry was writing songs and looking for singers to record them. Gordy became John’s coach and accompanied her on piano at local gigs.

In 1959, John performed at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar in what would prove to be Billie Holiday’s last show. Also that year, John began recording for Gordy’s fledgling Motown operation. Her singles came out on the Tamla subsidiary, but none of them sold. As a result, Gordy started using John mainly as a background singer before he ended her contract in 1962.

After Motown, John spent several years with Ray Charles in his back-up group, the Raelettes. In 1966, she signed with the Memphis-based powerhouse, Stax. Her first release on the label proved her biggest. “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” went top ten on Billboard magazine’s R&B chart but was her only hit. She left Stax in 1968 and went back to being a Raelette. John ended up leaving secular music in 1973, managing gospel acts and making the occasional recording.

By 1986, John was living in Los Angeles, where she founded Joy Community Outreach, a charity that feeds the homeless. In 1991, the UK-based Motorcity label issued a single on her, “Time Stops.” In 1993, John earned a Doctor of Divnity degree from the Crenshaw Christian Center. In 1994, she received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. In 2007, she played a blues singer in the John Sayles film, Honeydripper. And in 2014, she appeared in the Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom.

Mable John, 91, died in Los Angeles on August 25, 2022.

Charted single:

“Your Good Thing Is About to End” (1966) R&B #6, Pop #95

Other notable Mable John recordings include “You Are My Only Love” (1960), “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” (1961), “You’re Taking Up Another Man’s Place” (1966), “Same Time, Same Place” (1966), “I’m a Big Girl Now” (1967), “Don’t Hit Me No More” (1967), “Able Mable” (1968), and “Running Out” (1968).

Please check out the Unsung Heroes of Soul blog at

Dean Farrell hosts “The Soul Express” Fridays from 7:00-10:00 p.m. on WECS, 90.1-FM (www.wecsfm.com) and alternating Saturdays from 2:30 – 5:30 p.m. on WRTC, 89.3-FM (www.wrtcfm.com). He plays vintage soul music of the 1960s and ‘70s, everything from #1 hits to long-lost obscurities. Dean’s e-mail address is soulexpress@gmail.com.

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