Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Maxine Powell–Mother of Motown Manners

Maxine Powell, (May 30, 1915 – October 14, 2013), the finishing-school instructor who infused Motown’s young stars with elegance and poise. For almost 60 years, she taught grooming, poise, and the “social graces” to Motown artists before they went out into the spotlight.
Maxine Powell was always interested in the cultivation of social skills and grace. After graduating from high school in 1933, she attended Madam C.J. Walker's School of Beauty Culture; Maxine studied acting, elocution, and dance, as well. In the early 1940s she worked as a model and as a personal maid, and developed a one-woman show, An Evening with Maxine Powell, which she performed with a group at the Chicago Theatre. She moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1945, and taught self-improvement and modeling classes before opening the Maxine Powell Finishing and Modeling School in 1951. 
      
Madame C.J. (Sarah) Walker, founded her own business and began selling her own product called "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower," a scalp conditioning and healing formula, after suffering from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose some of her hair and experimenting with homemade remedies of another. To promote her products, she embarked on an exhausting sales drive throughout the South and Southeast selling her products door to door, giving demonstrations, and working on sales and marketing strategies. In 1908, she opened a college in Pittsburgh to train her "hair culturists." Madame Walker became the first known African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire, catering to the toilette needs of African-American women.
She and Berry Gordy became friends and, in the early-1960s, he asked her opinion of the young artists that had signed with his record company, Motown. In 1964, she closed her school to be a consultant to Motown's talent. When the company expanded into new offices, specifically Hitsville U.S.A., she was hired into the Artist Personal Development department in 1966 to teach artists such as Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and The Supremes. 
Motown artists heralded her as one of the label’s key behind-the-scenes figures, an unsung hero whose contributions came to be publicly recognized only in later decades.
Powell was enlisted by Motown Records in 1964 to help mold singers such as Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye into performers fit “for kings and queens,” as Powell often put it. She called them her diamonds in the rough, and her training — along with a lot of tough love — aimed to polish their posture, diction, stage presence and sense of self-worth.

As part of Motown’s Artist Personal Development Department, Powell was a vessel for Berry Gordy’s broader Motown vision: an entertainment legacy that crossed cultural and racial borders. “She brought something to Motown that no other record company had,” Gordy said in a statement after her death in 2013. “She was a star in her own right — an original.”


“I teach class, style and refinement,” was her familiar mantra, and those qualities were obvious in Powell herself: Primly attired and delicately mannered, she radiated a natural dignity and grace that often struck those who encountered her.

 Marvin Gaye, Smoky Robinson, the Supremes, the Jackson Five...  Maxine Powell called them her “diamonds in the rough." Her training polished their stage presence, their posture, their diction, and more importantly, their sense of self-worth. Former Supreme Mary Wilson described her mentor and longtime friend as “an extremely earthy black woman.” “She enjoyed life,” Wilson said. “She loved being out there.” 
But it wasn’t all formality with Powell, a Texas native who grew up in Chicago. There was also a twinkle in her eye that revealed a spirited soul underneath. Former Supreme Mary Wilson described her mentor and longtime friend as “an extremely earthy, black woman.” “She enjoyed life,” Wilson said. “She loved being out there.”

Wilson chuckled as she recounted Powell’s commands to the Supremes ahead of a national TV appearance: Dance not with your buttocks, she told the group, but with your knees — “you’re not out on the streets here.” But Powell imparted something far beyond the etiquette drills, Wilson said. “She gave us more than just the tools for the movements and the gowns,” she said. “These were tools for us as human beings.” 


Powell played her role of tutor well into her later years, quick to dole out instruction even to strangers. A slouching teen at a restaurant risked a snap judgment from the elderly Powell, recalled Wilson: “Young men don’t sit like that!”


“She had that magical, angelic instinct for understanding what someone was made of,” said Allen Rawls, the Motown Museum’s interim CEO. “She knew if she could get through to them in some way, she could help them improve themselves.”


Powell had closed her own Detroit finishing school to take the Motown job, and she continued that work after the label’s departure. Powell left Motown in 1969 and began teaching personal development courses from 1971 until 1985 at Wayne County Community College.


“She taught us all — men and women — etiquette, class and what you are supposed to do,” recalled the Four Tops’ Duke Fakir. “That’s artist development.” And they were lessons that became ingrained for life.