Maxine Powell still bristles when someone referres to her as an etiquette instructor.
Motown’s first lady of class won’t stomach such a limited description of her work — not before, after or during her 1964-1969 stint as part of the artist development department for the record company that has become synonymous with Motor City music.
“I didn’t follow them around looking at what forks they used,” says Powell. “I don’t teach you to walk around with a book on your head.”
Powell, prominent in Detroit long before she came to Motown, arrives at the International House of Pancakes just down the road from her Jefferson Avenue apartment in style.
She is dressed in elegant fuchsia and black, with large gold earrings and her hair tucked under an exquisite hat. As she sits herself down amid the dozens of framed photographs of mostly Motown artists that adorn the IHOP walls, she makes sure to tell the staff just exactly who she is.
Even though she can’t sing a note, she was a big part of the Motown sound.
As one-fourth of the label’s artist development department, Powell partnered with dance instructor Cholly Atkins, musical director Maurice King, and pianist and arranger Johnny Allen to put the finishing touch on recording artists who rolled off the Motown assembly line by the busload.
She was, in a sense, Motown’s in-house Emily Post. Her job was to hone the social skills and stage techniques — the personal development — of the future stars. It was a set-up that resembled old Hollywood charm schools set up by movie studios. The Supremes were her star students; Marvin Gaye loved her so much that he made her the godmother to one of his sons.
“Marvin Gaye had two personalities in one body,” continues the spirited septuagenarian. “A lot of people are that way. Tammi Terrell lived in a fantasy world. The Temptations didn’t have the confidence they should have had at the Copacabana. I was helping them go onstage because it was a different audience.”
As Powell remembers the work she and others did behind the Motown curtains, her speaking voice lowers into a fierce whisper.
“The four of us made magic with those artists, and Berry Gordy had the vision,” Powell says. “The world is still amazed at how a man who came from a career in boxing and worked in a factory before he opened Motown became a millionaire.”
From the beginning, Powell was nonplussed. Although Powell tips her hat to Gordy’s artistic vision, she peppers her conversation with pointed bons mots that tell of an acrimonious end of the Gordy/Powell relationship. (In an ironic twist, Gordy himself owns the East Jefferson Avenue apartment building where Powell lives).
Young musicians who passed through the label’s doors and into its recording studios wanted hit records, but Powell and her idol-making compadres wanted poised and confident stars whose talent would carry them beyond the short bursts of fame that come with chart success.
Gordy wanted acts that could transcend class and color lines and reign over upscale audiences in Vegas and New York. But Powell says her goals were even more lofty.
This summer when Martha Reeves played an extended run at the Detroit Opera House, the leader of the Vandellas brought Powell onstage every night in recognition of her contribution to the Sound of Young America.
“We have the queen here tonight,” Reeves said from the stage, referring to Powell.
Powell remembers every step she took, every inflection in her speaking voice, and the way she carried herself. Hipbones forward, buttocks tucked under, the position of her ears straight with the shoulder line, Powell wore an evening gown fit for Oscar night.
“I said ‘Hello, beautiful people,’ then I said, ‘Martha, do you remember when I told you ladies that you were going to be trained to perform before kings and queens, lords and ladies?’
“Martha said, ‘Yes ma’am.’ I said, ‘You ladies looked at each other and laughed and said, ‘That woman’s crazy.’”
By now, Powell is used to being called crazy. She’s proud of her accomplishments and is still an instructor at Wayne County Community College, where she taught personal development for nearly 15 years following her departure from Motown. She’s quick to point that she found success without a man at her side.
“That’s the only reason I’m still around,” Powell said. “Because I fought the world by myself.”
Like her partners in artist development — and unlike many of Motown’s stars, who came to the record company from the streets of Detroit with little more than unpolished talent and burning desire — Powell was a seasoned, professional woman when she hired in at Motown in 1964 at $110 a week.
“I closed my finishing school and opened a finishing school at Motown,” Powell says. “It is unique to this day. There has been no record company, black or white, that has done anything like that.”
Powell came to Detroit in 1945 from Chicago, where she was born to a middle-class family and where she also obtained experience as an actress, model and beautician.
In 1951, she opened the Maxine Powell Finishing and Modeling School, the city’s first black school of its type.
Until 1964, she operated the school, which she describes as a groundbreaker in race relations; as its director she was able to get black models placed with Detroit’s major auto companies.
Her models turned up in the pages of Detroit’s daily newspapers for the first time, turning heads in the process.
“In the 1950s, there was no market for black models and blacks didn’t make the papers unless they committed a crime or did something naughty,” Powell says.
As a member of the Zonta Club, a women’s service group, Powell negotiated to bring black productions and black artists to Orchestra Hall and the Latin Quarter.
“I always got to places where blacks were not supposed to get,” she said. “I never saw prejudice, I just saw human beings. I knew if you had class, style and refinement that it would make you outstanding around the world.”
Powell says she held that belief since she was a child, and that nothing ever swayed her from the belief that African-Americans could get past what she describes as the caste system of the United States.
“I always thought that if there was only 100, only 100 could get past, I always thought I’d be part of that 100, or I could train that one who could get past. I didn’t believe in the things that the caste system and society set up.” Powell said.
Berry Gordy’s sister Gwen was one of the models who graced the pages of the Detroit Free Press; Powell trained not only Gwen but her sisters Loucye and Esther.
It was the Gordy sisters who convinced Berry Gordy to hire Powell.
“Berry Gordy didn’t think they needed it,” Powell says.
Powell begged to differ when she got to Motown, where she saw oozing talent but little in the way of the class and refinement she demanded of her models.
Powell taught the abstract as well as the concrete, lessons on stage technique intertwined with motivational lectures on how to unlock one’s personal power.
Although a generation older than most of the Motown performers she taught at home and on tour, Powell cringes at the thought that she might have become a mother figure to Motown artists.
“I told them, ‘I’m only here to uplift your lives and help you to skip to the bank,’” she says.
Powell explains that while some artists may have bucked at some of the more delicate aspects of her teaching, such as her making them sit in a circle before telling her charges that they were all flowers in a garden, they had to pass her way nonetheless. And this was at a time when most musicians were defining themselves as individualists.
Artist development was viewed as four-year, university-level training, and Gordy demanded that it be well-attended.
“Everybody came through artist development. I don’t care how talented you were,” Powell explains. “It was two hours a day with each one of us.”
Martha Reeves admits to being initially skeptical of Powell, but says she still considers herself a student of the person she alternately refers to as Ms. Powell, Dr. Powell and Professor Powell.
“I guess I always will be,” says Reeves. “She gave us a dream and hope. Before meeting her I never felt I had a place in society, but she taught us that all doors would eventually open, and she was absolutely right.”