Remembering The Woman Who Gave Motown Its Charm
In 2007, decades after Maxine Powell had retired from training a generation of black artists at Motown, a reporter from a Cleveland television station asked her whether anyone had been particularly difficult to work with.
Powell cut her off before she finished. "I don't have that," she said. "No one is difficult. Each person is a beautiful, unique human being. So if you have a problem and you're acting negative, you have been conditioned."
She went on. "So I said to my students, 'Allow me to help you unlearn that and realize and discover what a beautiful flower you are.' "
Powell, who died this weekend at the age of 98, was Motown's director of artist development during its heyday, and her job was to teach the label's young musicians how to present themselves in public. "They did come from humble beginnings," she told the Cleveland reporter, "some of them from the projects, some of them were using street language, some were rude and crude."
But to audiences at the time, those beginnings would have been invisible. For a long stretch in the 1960s, Motown's clean, factory-precise sound dominated popular music. The label's roster — the Temptations, the Supremes, The Jackson 5 — helped desegregate the radio waves. Motown was a kind of machine: Songs were written by committee, and artists had their images meticulously managed and cultivated. This meant that Motown's artists made incursions into places that black artists were not often seen; according to a Contemporary Black Biography interview, Powell told artists she was preparing them for "the White House and Buckingham Palace."
She was known to her charges as a straight-talking taskmaster. In 2009, All Things Considered host Rebecca Roberts asked her what kind of tips she gave artists:
"Body language. Everybody walks, but I teach how to glide. I teach how if you drop something, how to pick it up. If your slip comes down around your feet, how to stand in the basic standing position and step out of it smiling, with your hip bones pushed forward and the buttocks pushed under. You never, never protrude the buttocks because it means an ugly gesture, you see? They learned all of those things. I was turned loose to do whatever was necessary to make the artist look first-class."
But some artists were initially resistant to her instruction. She told the Detroit News that Marvin Gaye felt that he didn't "need 'charm school.' "
She corrected him: "It's a finishing school."
"Well, I don't need finishing," he told her.
" 'You don't need as much as some, but you close your eyes when you're singing, and people think you're asleep,' I told him," Powell recalled. " 'And you slouch. So we'll work on those two things.' "
She also worked with the Temptations, Tammi Terrell, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. ("But I didn't do anything for Stevie," she told Roberts. "Stevie was always beautiful.")
"Two days a week when you were back in Detroit you had to go to artists' development," Robinson said. "It was mandatory. You went there and learned so many things about being in show business."
But Powell said that her work wasn't simply about prettifying pop stars — she saw it as part of the larger fight for black progress. "All my life I was thinking of things that would help my race become outstanding and I thought of class and style ... two things that would be accepted around the world," she told the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Just this summer, Powell told people gathered at an event in her honor that she would "teach until there's no breath left in my body." And indeed, Martha Reeves, the lead singer of the Vandellas and later a member of Detroit's City Council, said she dispatched Powell to schools and retirement homes to teach children and the elderly about "poise and pride."
Today, black artists don't have trouble making it to the White House. Beyonce was the toast of the inaugural ball in 2008, and Jay Z, her husband, was on the dais during President Obama's second inauguration this year. Black artists no longer need charm school to burnish their palatability with white audiences; today, authenticity has as much cachet as respectability, if not more. Motown desegregated the airwaves, normalizing black celebrity enough that black people would eventually not always have to be perfect in public spaces. (Indeed, many of the artists that Powell tutored — Gaye and Terrell, in particular — later dealt with their demons in the limelight.) That's a reality that Maxine Powell and Motown helped to bring about, even if that may not have been their intent.
To the last, Powell was a picture of grace.
"Thank you so much for being here," Roberts said to her on All Things Considered.
Impeccable as always, Powell responded: "You're perfectly welcome."
You can listen to Karen Grigsby Bates's obituary for Maxine Powell on NPR's All Things Considered, which is embedded at the top of this article.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The world is a little less elegant today. Maxine Powell, Motown's matron of refinement, died yesterday in a Detroit suburb. Powell made a career of buffing the rough edges for Motown's stable of stars and polishing them enough to perform before royalty. She was 98 years old. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.
MAXINE POWELL: Everybody walks, but I teach how to glide.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Maxine Powell was well-known in Detroit before anyone had ever heard of Diana Ross or The Supremes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP! IN THE NAME OF LOVE")
THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Stop, in the name of love before you break my heart.
BATES: Miss Powell ran a modeling and finishing school that many of the city's black young women attended, especially those who wanted move up in the world. Fledgling record impresario Berry Gordy Jr.'s sister had been one of her models. So when Gwen Gordy urged her brother to ask Maxine Powell to work with the talent he'd assembled at Motown - acts like The Supremes, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Martha Reeves - he did, as she recalled to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in 2009.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
POWELL: I closed my finishing school and opened a finishing school in Motown. And I said, well, we're going to develop the artists.
BATES: The musical talent was there, but the presentation needed a little refining. Gordy wanted his singers to stand apart from other labels. He wanted them to be able to play not only big urban venues but on Broadway and in Las Vegas. Enter Maxine Powell, whose lessons included everything from elocution - always yes, never yeah - to posture.
POWELL: With your hipbones pushed forward and the buttocks pushed under. You never, never protrude the buttock because it means an ugly gesture.
BATES: Hear that, twerkers? Soon the value of Miss Powell's work became evident to everyone, including Berry Gordy.
POWELL: He began to see the difference because I teach class and class will turn the heads of kings and queens.
BATES: Such as Queen Elizabeth's and the Queen Mother's when The Supremes performed at the London Palladium. Eventually, several Motown groups would play another kind of palace: Caesars, in Las Vegas. All of Miss Powell's ladies remembered their training. Their wigs were always impeccable. They exited cars like Princess Grace. The men - Smokey Robinson, Levi Stubbs, Marvin Gaye - exuded a kind of suave, reined-in sexuality that appealed to black audiences and didn't frighten white ones.
The artists that Miss Powell worked with didn't all start out with advantages. She told WGBH earlier this year their past wasn't important.
POWELL: You know, they came from humble beginnings and some were rude and crude and from the street and the projects. But with me, it isn't where you come from. It's where you're going.
BATES: And where they went, with Maxine Powell's guidance, was to the top of the charts.
On Monday, surrounded by family and friends, Maxine Powell left the world the way she'd moved through it and taught others to - with dignity and grace. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, THE TRACKS OF MY TEARS)
SMOKEY ROBINSON: (Singing) People say I'm the life of the party... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.