She never sang a note or wrote a lyric, but she was as essential to Motown as any of the label’s artists and producers. Who am I talking about? Yup, you guessed it – Mrs. Maxine Powell.
“She was such an important, integral part of what we were doing at Motown” said Smokey Robinson in 2013. “It didn’t matter who you became during the course of your career, how many hits you had, or how well your name was known around the world, two days a week when you were back in Detroit, you had to go to Artists Development. You went there and learned so many things about being in show business.”
So let’s briefly reflect on Mrs. Powell’s early life and how she hooked up with Motown. Born on 30 May 1915, Maxine Blair was raised by an aunt in Chicago. As a teenager she started acting, eventually appearing with the Negro Drama League, a black repertory company there. From this, she worked as a model, before training as a cosmetologist and manicurist at Madam C.J. Walker’s School of Beauty Culture. During 1958, the 43-year-old black American etiquette coach moved to Detroit to open her own Finishing and Modelling School in Detroit for African-Americans and, as a talent scout, instigated black productions in theatres, and placed black models in advertising campaigns. To this end, she had three female models, two male and two children on her books, with major clients of Packard, Dodge and Chrysler. She hosted an annual show, and one particular year wanted to produce a souvenir programme to celebrate the occasion. The Gordy Printing Company, run by Mrs. Esther Gordy and her brother Fuller, was recommended as being the best in Detroit. This marked Mrs. Powell’s first introduction to the family. Esther’s husband, George Edwards, was a state representative, and intended to run for a seat on Detroit’s City Council. As Mrs. Powell had an empty office in her property, The Ferry Centre, comprising a large ballroom, private party room, bar, banquet kitchen and five offices, she offered it to George Edwards. Esther became her husband’s campaign manager and, as the Gordy family was notoriously close knit, members often popped by to help him out. Through these visits it became clear that Mrs. Bertha Gordy Snr. was interested in personal development, later signing up for one of Mrs. Powell’s courses: likewise Loucye and Esther. Gwen Gordy went on to become one of her models. This was, of course, pre-Motown, where friendships were cemented and working relationships developed.
Prior to Mrs. Powell joining Motown, she was introduced to fledgling artists because they were showcased in her downstairs ballroom. Indeed, when Berry Gordy penned “Lonely Teardrops” for Jackie Wilson, she was asked to watch his performance then asked to critique it. From here, Berry Gordy asked her to open the ‘Motown Finishing School.’ Once he began signing artists to his new record label, he encouraged them to attend Mrs. Powell’s classes, but it wasn’t obligatory. “When I met the artists, they were young. They came from humble beginnings and not all, but some of them, were rude and crude, and from the streets and the Projects” she once said. “It’s not where they came from, but where they were heading. (They’re) gonna learn how to perform, gonna graduate and become great performers.” She called them ‘diamonds in the rough’. Personal grooming included artists being taught how to walk, the proper way to smoke a cigarette, the graceful way to walk up and down stairs, to jump on a piano, and the correct way to enter and alight from a vehicle without showing a bare leg or underwear. She was quick to point out that she had nothing to do with voice – “I teach them to smile and be beautiful, because every time you smile, every muscle in your body is relaxed for that split second. And some of them turned out to be rubies and emeralds.”
Each act was also trained to perform an original stage show, with dances and dialogue worked out for them. Even the adlibbing was rehearsed. Their choreography was painstakingly thought out, right down to holding the microphone, and the many ways of using it effectively. “Nobody was forced to do anything” Mrs. Powell told the Respect programme. “I was there only to enrich their life and help them skip to the bank…if they weren’t interested in that, then that was OK.” However, those artists who recognised the value in her classes were told to listen and follow the positive guidelines she offered, saying – “…You’re getting a basic finishing background to do anything you want to do in life…..When I told them you’re going to travel to appear in number one places around the country, and even before the King and Queen, they didn’t believe it. All they wanted was a hit record. ”
The School was the only one of its kind offered at any record company, and Berry Gordy often joked that he still remembers Mrs. Powell’s aphorisms like – “Do not confuse me with your parents. They’re stuck with you, I’m not” and “Do not protrude your buttocks.”
However, Marvin Gaye was one artist who believed he didn’t need any training in what he called ‘the charm school’. Mrs. Powell agreed that he may not need her help as much as others, but his biggest failing was singing with his eyes closed, giving the appearance he was singing in his sleep. She told him – “You can close your eyes for a certain gesture but your eyes are the mirrors of your soul….so we (had) to work on that.” She also suggested he could improve his walk because he led with his shoulders and head. His ears should be straight with his shoulders, she told him. So they worked together until she was satisfied.
She also recalled Diana Ross being a dedicated hard worker, claiming, no other artist matched the hours she put in. However, when The Supremes sang “Baby Love”, Mrs. Powell told them they were making faces, while Diana opened her mouth so wide it appeared she was about to swallow the microphone. “We worked on expressing….looking pleasant and with a smile and maybe a gesture. How to handle the mic (ensuring) the mic didn’t handle you…..All a singer needs is voice and expression. Anything else you have is an asset to your profession.” She also encouraged Diana not to look or lean forward, rather push her hip bones forward – “like pushing them up under your chin.” This created the correct posture. Next on the agenda was how to walk – one foot in front of the other, and further, she said – “The torso of the body should never move. All you need to walk is to lift your feet and let the action carry the body.” In later years Diana Ross acknowledged – “Mrs. Powell was the person who taught me everything I know.”
The Temptations’ debut at New York’s Copacabana proved to be a logistical problem for the group until Mrs. Powell came up with the solution. As there was no stage and restricted space for them to perform in the way that they usually did at other venues, like the Fox Theatre for example, she suggested – “I want all five of you to stand and touch fingers. Stretch your arms out and touch your fingers together, that’s all the space you need to perform. If you cover every inch of where your fingers are, you’ve done (it)”.
Mrs. Powell said Martha Reeves was adorable to work it. She didn’t only concentrate on herself but also her Vandellas, always teaching them what she had learned. “(Martha) wasn’t into the real glamour clothes….(but) they always looked nice. “ Mrs. Powell remembered that when the trio was part of the Motown Revue, Martha wasn’t as secure as she wanted to be and often did not feel good about herself. “So it would take her, maybe, until twelve o’clock to …get herself together where she could feel relaxed and talk to people.” The two worked together and in time Martha overcame her fears. Years later in an interview with The Observer newspaper, Martha acknowledged her gratitude: “Everything I do and every move I make has to do with her teachings…She also taught us how to dance with our feet. Today, a lot of women in this business dance with their bodies. The camera strikes them at the pelvis first, then goes to their faces. Mrs. Powell showed us how to use our feet, which moved our bodies with elegance. What she taught me was class and self-worth.”
In another interview with The Guardian during 2013, Martha remembered that as black artists they had to overcome all aspects of racial discrimination, including being denied the use of a toilet or not being allowed to eat in restaurants. “She taught us how to tolerate, to sustain and to persevere. And she was right. I survived.” When Mrs. Powell was in her nineties, they hung out as friends with Martha, once elected to Detroit’s City Council, hiring her to assist her at council functions and charity events. –“(Mrs.. Powell) knew a lot about politics and Detroit. How it ran. She was very aware of everything, a font of information, and a well respected figure in the city.” Mrs.. Powell also helped Martha write speeches, make connections, while becoming her confidante. She also refused to tell her real age, at ninety-two, because “people think you’re useless”. All told, Martha continued, Mrs.. Powell served four years doing community liaison by visiting retirement homes, encouraging old folks to get up and dance, and to schools where the young people might have disapproved of two elderly ladies telling them what to do. “But, she’d have them up and walking, showing them how to be proud and walk without a swag.”
The Miracles’ Bobby Rogers warmly remembered Mrs. Powell as a stickler for positive behaviour – “She deserves all the credit and admiration she gets. What a wonderful addition to Motown she’s been.” The Four Tops’ Duke Fakir said, “She taught us all etiquette, class and what you are supposed to do. That’s artist development.” And, Berry Gordy told her, “You have style.”
Mrs. Powell insisted she was overwhelmingly proud of all the performers she worked with, telling journalist Jeff Karbour that “This has been a blessing. I thank God for allowing me to be here….I’m very proud of them because you don’t hear a lot of negative things about Motown artists.”
Mrs. Maxine Powell always radiated a natural dignity and grace, delicately mannered and primly dressed from her shoes to her obligatory hat. And this is how we remembered her up to her death in October 2013 in Southfield’s Providence Hospital. Her actual cause of death was said to have been associated with her declining health following a fall on 31 May. Her passing was peaceful, surrounded by close friends and her Motown family.
Berry Gordy – “The Motown legacy would not be what it is today if not for her.”