March 6, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Motown's Velvelettes honored with exhibit

The Velvelettes perform during a Motown fundraiser at Arturo's Jazz Club in Southfield in November 2008. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

KALAMAZOO -- The Velvelettes are the stealth Motown girl group. They didn't have the mega-fame of the Supremes, but their hits "Needle in a Haystack" and "Really Saying Something" have stood the test of time as classic Motown songcraft.

Today, if you want to see an all-original Motown girl group in full glamour mode, hitting all the notes wearing gowns with enough spangles to be seen in outer space, you go see the Velvelettes.

It was in Kalamazoo, at Western Michigan University that the group formed in 1962, and now they're being honored with an exhibit, "Meet the Velvelettes, Legendary Girl Group" at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum through Sept. 27. In October, a sculpture of the Velvelettes will be unveiled at WMU.

Donna Odom curated the exhibit, gathering vintage costumes and original photographs and artifacts from the Velvelettes, as well as clothing the girls would have worn at college. Odom found a classic girl group beehive wig online, and it has pride of place in the center of the exhibit. There are also video interviews with each Velvelette.

The hometown buzz has been good, with many learning for the first time of the city's Motown connection.

"Bertha of the Velvelettes taught school here for so many years, but I don't think all of her students were aware of her background," Odom says. "Past students of hers have gone through the exhibit and were just amazed!"

It was in the fall of 1962 that Bertha, her cousin Norma Barbee and Mildred Gill got together with Millie's little sister, Caldin "Cal" Gill and a friend, Betty Kelley, to sing at WMU (Kelley left early on to join the Vandellas).

Cal was lead singer since she had the biggest voice. The group won a $25 talent contest and impressed fellow student Robert Bullock, who happened to be Esther Gordy Edwards' son and Berry Gordy's nephew. Bullock advised the group to look up his uncle's record company in Detroit. One Saturday in December 1962, Cal and Millie's father drove the group to Detroit in a blinding snowstorm.

Despite a chilly reception from a secretary, the group managed to get an audition. Motown producer Norman Whitfield was allowed to have a go at the Velvelettes, for whom he wrote (with Barrett Strong) and produced their biggest hit, "Needle in a Haystack" in 1964. Whitfield took the girl group sound and made it explode off the turntable with attitude. Young Cal evinced sass beyond her years, chiding the Norma-Bertha-Millie chorus, "What DID I say girls?"

Cal was only 15 on the earliest records. "Norman (Whitfield) would tell me, 'Own the song, convince me that you believe what you're saying,' " she says.

Unlike the short, sad story of many Motown acts who had nothing else to fall back on, the Velvelettes all had a Plan B, earning degrees and pursuing non-music careers. Cal went to work for Upjohn, and then WMU; Millie was a registered nurse in Flint; Norma was a marketing director for a hotel in Flint and Bertha taught school in Kalamazoo.

Norma, Millie and Bertha left the group in the '60s, while Cal married a Temptation (Richard Street), kept the group going then packed it in.

In the mid-'80s, the Velvelettes got together to sing the old songs for a women's conference.

"We had all gone through divorce, primarily from the husbands who'd pulled us away from the business," Cal Street says, "so it was kind of refreshing, a new challenge. I never in my wildest dreams thought that it would happen again, but fate brought us together in the first place, then it brought us together years later."

Since then, the Velvelettes have continued to tour in Europe and in Michigan, and are busier than ever in this year of Motown 50.

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall@detnews.com">swhitall@detnews.com.

The original Velvelettes performed from 1962-1964. (Photo courtesy of Kalamazoo Valley Museum)