Maxine Powell, Motown’s Maven of Style, Dies at 98
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: October 16, 2013
Maxine Powell, the Miss Manners of Motown, who as the director of the label’s in-house finishing school in the 1960s was considered in no small part responsible for its early success, died on Monday in Southfield, Mich. She was 98.
Tony Ding/Associated Press
Her death was announced by the Motown Museum in Detroit.
In a statement on Monday, Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown Records, said that Mrs. Powell “brought something to Motown that no other record company had,” adding of his artists, “She was tough, but when she got through with them, they were poised, professional and very thankful.”
At Motown, Mrs. Powell presided over what is believed to have been the only finishing school at an American record label at any time. Her disciples — young, scrappy and untried — included many future titans of American popular music, whom she polished with the finesse of a diamond cutter.
“Mrs. Powell was always a lady of grace, elegance and style, and we did our best to emulate her,” Martha Reeves, the former lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I don’t think I would have been successful at all without her training.”
Among her other pupils were the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Diana Ross, the Supremes’ former lead singer, has described Mrs. Powell as “the person who taught me everything I know.”
Officially, Mrs. Powell was a director of Motown’s artist development department. But in reality she was equal parts headmistress, psychotherapist, iron-willed favorite aunt and temperate bartender.
Her combined ministrations, she told her charges, were meant to equip them for precisely two contingencies: invitations to the White House and invitations to Buckingham Palace.
“I teach class,” Mrs. Powell was fond of saying. “And class will turn the heads of kings and queens.”
Though Mrs. Powell was associated with the label for just five years, from 1964 to 1969, her presence was felt long beyond.
“Every asset of my personality has been by her influence,” said Ms. Reeves, who became a lifelong friend. “Even to the end, she was making sure that I was standing with posture and exuberant grace.”
At Motown, singers were required to take instruction from Mrs. Powell for two hours a day whenever they were in Detroit. Her curriculum covered deportment onstage and off: how to speak impeccably and stand erect, how to glide instead of merely walking, how to sit in a limousine with the ankles crossed just so.
There was also individualized instruction. Ms. Ross, for instance, favored exorbitantly long false eyelashes. That did not sit well with Mrs. Powell, who installed shorter ones.
Mr. Gaye liked to sing with his eyes closed. That did not sit well with Mrs. Powell either, and she insisted he keep them open.
She once came upon the Supremes practicing a dance called the shake. That emphatically did not sit well with Mrs. Powell, as she recalled in a 1986 interview with People magazine:
“ ‘You are protruding the buttocks,’ ” she admonished them. “ ‘Whenever you do a naughty step like the shake, add some class to it. Instead of shaking and acting tough, you should roll your buttocks under and keep smiling all the time.’ Then I showed them. They were shocked that I could do it and at how much better it looked my way.”
Though Mrs. Powell was barely more than five feet tall, the world seemed scarcely large enough to contain her. By the time she arrived at Motown, she had been a stage actress, model and manicurist; a charm-school director; and the founder of the what is widely described as Detroit’s first modeling agency for African-Americans.
Maxine Blair was born on May 30, 1915, in Texarkana, Tex., and reared by an aunt in Chicago. She began acting as a teenager, eventually appearing with the Negro Drama League, a black repertory company there.
She later worked as a model and trained as a manicurist and cosmetologist at Madam C. J. Walker’s School of Beauty Culture, founded by the celebrated black entrepreneur.
After moving to Detroit in the 1940s, Mrs. Powell founded the Maxine Powell Finishing and Modeling School in 1951, which placed the first black models in campaigns for the city’s major automakers.
One of Mrs. Powell’s models was Gwen Gordy, Berry’s sister. She told her brother that Mrs. Powell was just the person to groom his young stars.
Mr. Gordy demurred at first, seeing no need. But his sister prevailed, and before long Mrs. Powell had closed her agency and moved to Motown, where she made herself indispensable.
She often accompanied the artists on tour, serving as sounding board, chaperon and restrained mixologist.
“After a performance, I made all the drinks,” Mrs. Powell told People. “Melvin Franklin of the Temptations said you had to have five of my drinks before you ever felt anything.”
Mrs. Powell’s marriage to James Powell ended in divorce. No immediate family members survive.
After leaving Motown, Mrs. Powell taught personal development for many years at Wayne County Community College in Detroit. She later worked part time as an aide to Ms. Reeves when she served on the Detroit City Council from 2005 to 2009.
One of the most noteworthy things about Mrs. Powell’s tenure at Motown was her prescience. One day, she recalled in the interview with People, she taught her students how to sit on stools.
The Supremes objected.
“We don’t go to bars, why should we sit on a stool?” they said.
“A lady with class can sit on a garbage pail and look good,” Mrs. Powell replied.
Shortly afterward, the Supremes appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show,” and lo and behold, there were stools there.
The Supremes sat, and by Mrs. Powell’s lights, they sat well.