Celebrated as the "Godmother of Detroit Soul," Johnnie Mae Matthews was born December 31, 1922, in Bessemer, AL. According to the Soulful Detroit website, she learned to sing in her church choir, additionally performing alongside her mother at military bases throughout the Deep South. When she was 12 the family relocated to New Jersey, and in 1947 Matthews alone moved to Detroit, where she married and raised a family, largely limiting her musical aspirations to singing and playing piano at home. In 1957 she joined a local quintet called the Five Dapps, assuming lead vocals on "You're So Unfaithful," the B-side of the group's 1958 Brax label debut, "Do Wop a Do." Instrumental backing on the record was contributed by pianist Joe Hunter, who would frequently collaborate with Matthews in the years to follow and later led Motown's famed studio band the Funk Brothers.
Later in 1958, Matthews formed her own record label, dubbed the Northern Recording Company, so named in honor of the popular brand of toilet tissue. Headquartered in an office at 2608 Blaine, just a few blocks from her home, she launched the imprint on just $85 borrowed from her husband's paycheck from the Ford Motor Company, in the process becoming one of the very first African-American women to own and operate her own label. With sessions typically recorded at either nearby Special Studio or radio station WCHB, Northern launched largely as a vehicle for Matthews' own performing career. Its premiere release, 1959's "Dreamer," was credited to Johnnie Mae Matthews & the Dapps, while the follow-up, "Mr. Fine," featured as its flip side "Someday," a solo turn by local singer Chet Oliver. With 1960's "So Lonely," Matthews dropped the Dapps altogether, quickly following up with "Ooh Wee Baby." On these sessions she was backed by the Groovers, a group led by Hunter and rounded out by bassist James Jamerson, guitarist Eddie Willis, saxophonist Eli Fontaine, and drummer Uriel Jones, all of who would become staples of Motown's greatest sessions.
Northern also nurtured the early career of Richard "Popcorn" Wylie, whose backing group, the Mohawks, included Norman Whitfield, later one of Motown's most visionary songwriters and producers. Most significantly, in 1960 the label issued "Come On," the debut single by the Distants, later rechristened the Temptations. In time, Northern spun off a series of sister labels, most notably Reel, home to a series of Matthews singles such as 1961's "Oh, Baby," "No One Can Love Me the Way You Do," "The Headshrinker," and "Come Home." In 1963 Reel issued "I Don't Want Your Love," a duet pairing Matthews and Timmy Shaw, her longtime songwriting collaborator who is best known for his 1964 solo effort "Gonna Send You Back to Georgia," later covered by the Animals among many other artists. Ironically, Matthews' biggest hit, 1962's "My Special Angel," appeared not on one of her own labels but on New York-based Sue. Indeed, with so many labels and artists under her control, her solo career proved wanting for attention, so in 1963 she enlisted manager Ollie McLaughlin, previously responsible for launching the career of the great Barbara Lewis. McLaughlin brought Matthews to the attention of Mercury's new Blue Rock subsidiary, producing both of her singles for the label, "Baby, What's Wrong" and "My Man (The Sweetest Man in the World)," as well as her lone Spokane label effort, "Worried About You" (regarded by many as the creative zenith of her recording career).
Although Matthews would record for other Detroit labels, including boxing promoter "Diamond Jim" Riley's Big D (for which she cut 1966's "Don't Talk About My Man"), she repeatedly resisted overtures from Motown. Its founder, Berry Gordy, nevertheless often credited Matthews with teaching him the ropes of the recording industry, acknowledging her assistance in helping land a distribution deal with Chess for the Miracles' 1959 hit "Bad Girl." Matthews also fostered the early careers of such future Motown stars as David and Jimmy Ruffin, and was the uncredited author of Mary Wells' breakthrough hit, "Bye Bye Baby." Most notably, of course, by enlisting local session players like Hunter and James Jamerson, Northern essentially drafted the blueprint of what would become the famed "Motown Sound." It's impossible to know how differently Matthews' own recording career might have turned out had she accepted any of Gordy's invitations; particularly during the mid-'60s, she was consistently delivering some of the finest material of her career, most notably 1967's "Lonely You'll Be" and "Cut Me Loose," the latter subsequently licensed for national distribution on Atco.
During the late '60s Matthews also cut a series of excellent singles for her Big Hit label, including "I Have No Choice," "My Momma Didn't Lie," and "Don't Be Discouraged," before shuttering the label and all of Northern's subsidiaries as the decade drew to a close. As the 1970s dawned she turned her attention to Black Nasty, a fledgling funk group featuring her children Artwell and Audrey -- in 1973, Matthews produced the band's lone LP, the 1973 Stax label release Talking to the People. Later renamed the ADC Band, the group resurfaced in 1978 with the R&B smash "Long Stroke." No doubt encouraged by their success, Matthews revived Northern around this time, with the ADC Band contributing musical backing on 1979's disco-inspired "It's Good," which was later reissued on Cotillion for national distribution. After one final Northern effort, 1980's "I Can Feel It," she closed the label for good, effectively ending her recording career in one broad stroke. Matthews died January 6, 2002; sadly, her vast contributions to Detroit's rich musical traditions remain largely undocumented and unappreciated.