Johnnie Mae Matthews

December 31, 1922 – January 6, 2002

The first African American woman to own her own record label, Johnnie Mae Matthews was a hugely – if quietly – influential figure in the early 1960’s Detroit R&B music scene. A recording artist in her own right, Matthews worked early on with the likes of Otis Williams and the Distants, Jimmy and David Ruffin, Norman Whitfield, Richard Street and Berry Gordy. Gordy often cited Matthews as the one who showed him the ropes of the music business and encouraged him to start Motown records. Johnnie, under her label, Northern Recording Company, was the original manager of the Temptations when they were still known as “the Distants.”

Matthews was a behind-the-scenes force on the local music scene, but she also recorded a number of songs of her own. Her backing bands on her recordings consisted of local artists like Joe Hunter, James Jamerson, Uriel Jones and Eddie Willis…who would all go on to be part of the illustrious Funk Brothers studio band for Motown.

Johnnie would operate a number of different versions of Northern over the course of the 1970s, including managing and promoting the ADC Band, a funk outfit that included two of her children. She closed up shop for good in 1980. She died in 2002 at the age of 79 after a prolonged battle with cancer.

Burial

Woodlawn Cemetery – Detroit, MI

Specific Location

Section 42, Row 27 , Grave 509 – Find the southern point at the intersection of Sections 42 and 40 (and the Mausoleum lawn) Johnnie is buried in the middle of the section, north of this point. There does not appear to be a public explanation for why her birth date is listed as 1934 on her marker.

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