Maxine Powell: Head of Tamla Motown's charm school
Wednesday 16 October 2013
Maxine Powell was responsible for developing the charm, grace and style of Motown Records' artists during the Detroit label's 1960s heyday. She didn't sing or write songs, but those associated with Motown say Powell was as essential to the label's operations as any performer or producer.
She directed the label's Artists Development Department, also known as "Motown's Finishing School". Through it, she emphasised to many artists – including Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Jackson Five and the Supremes – how they should carry themselves, treat people and dress.
Motown's founder, Berry Gordy, said the training school was the only one of its kind offered at any record label. "She brought something to Motown that no other record company had," he said. "She was a star in her own right – an original. She will always be remembered for her style and class, and she instilled that into the Motown artists by teaching them how to walk, talk and even think with class."
Powell died less than two months after she was honoured at the Motown Historical Museum by Robinson and others. "She was such an important, integral part of what we were doing here at Motown," Robinson said at the event held at the famed Hitsville, USA building. "It didn't matter who you became during the course of your career – how many hits you had, 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. It was mandatory."
Gordy also paid tribute to Powell during the celebration, saying that he still remembered many of Powell's sayings, such as "Do not protrude the buttocks," and "Do not confuse me with your parents – they're stuck with you. I'm not." Martha Reeves recalled: "I was a bit of a tomboy. She was the first person to tell me I was beautiful."
Born Maxine Blair in Texarkana, Texas, Powell was raised in Chicago by her aunt, who taught etiquette and refinement. She began her career as an actress and model in Chicago before moving to Detroit, where she opened the Maxine Powell Finishing School, training African-American models. One of those models was Gordy's sister, Gwen, who was responsible for bringing Powell to Motown.
Once at Hitsville, she focused on polishing the young artists for their lives in the spotlight. Some of the training included teaching Marvin Gaye to sing with his eyes open and having others balance books on their heads to improve posture. She also instructed artists on how to properly exit limousines.
Powell said in August that she would "teach until there's no breath left in my body. I love all the Motown artists. This has been a blessing. I thank God for allowing me to be here."
Maxine Powell, etiquette instructor and talent agent: born Texarkana, Texas 30 May 1915; died Southfield, Michigan 14 October 2013.
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