- Illustration by Shan Stumpf
[As is our tradition, we’ve profiled some of the lesser-known individuals we lost in 2013 – people who, through their contributions to our culture, left this world a better place than they found it.]
In its heyday, the Motown record label was a well-oiled machine that churned out hit after hit. Behind such iconic names as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Martha & the Vandellas, there was a veritable small army of songwriters, session musicians and back-up vocalists who never received the notoriety they deserved at the time. And yet, one woman may have single-handedly had more influence on the entire Motown brand than anyone else at the label, and she never wrote a song, played an instrument or sang a note. As head of Motown’s in-house finishing school, Maxine Powell polished Detroit’s young raw talent into the stylish ladies and gentlemen who would define the era. She died this year at age 98.
Born in Texas and raised in Chicago, Powell worked as an actress and model before moving to Detroit in 1945. She opened Detroit’s first black finishing school in 1951, where Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.’s sisters ranked among her students. Powell and Gordy met when she placed an order at Gordy’s family’s print shop; with his sisters’ encouragement, he hired her to work for his record label’s new Artist Personal Development Department.
“She brought something to Motown that no other record company had,” Gordy said in a statement following her death. “She was a star in her own right – an original.” It is believed that Motown’s finishing school was the only in-house school of its type for any record label.
“She was not only smart, but very funny,” Gordy said. When her charges protested having to spend two hours a day with her, she replied with quips of her own, like, “I love you all, but don’t confuse me with your mother – she’s stuck with you, I’m not!” She encouraged her students to be sophisticated and refined, not coarse and crude. “Ladies, remember your gloves, walk with class like you were taught – and always remember, do not protrude the buttocks,” she would say, and “one day you will perform for the kings and queens of Europe” – which would prove to be prophetic, as Motown’s popularity spread around the world.
Her tenure at Motown was short – from 1964 to 1969 – but defined perhaps the epitome of the label’s look and sound. She parted ways with the label at the end of the ’60s as Motown relocated its operations to Los Angeles, and shortly after started a stint teaching personal development classes at Wayne County Community College.
Yet her influence had a lasting impact on those she taught. Proof came much later in life, when former Motown star Martha Reeves hired Powell to work as her personal assistant as she campaigned for and ultimately served for the Detroit City Council. Powell, then in her 90s, helped Reeves prepare speeches and served as her community liaison as well as a confidante. Powell’s lessons didn’t end at the footlights: She encouraged those she taught to be the best version of themselves that they could be.