Maxine Powell, who was in charge of artists' personal development at Motown, attended an event in her honor at the Motown Historical Museum in August. Powell died Monday. She was 98. (Andre Smith / Motown Museum)
Maxine Powell, the feisty finishing school teacher who took Motown’s stable of talented, rough-hewn kids and turned them into glamorous stars, died this morning at Providence Hospital in Southfield. She was 98.
Born in Texarkana, Texas, and raised in Chicago, Powell was one of the founding members of Motown’s fabled Artist Development department, which was organized by Harvey Fuqua to instruct the label’s young stars in singing, dancing and general deportment. Bandleader Maurice King worked on the music, choreographer Cholly Atkins gave them their moves, and Powell showed the teenagers the finer points of grooming and presentation.
Berry Gordy Jr. met Powell after his sisters Gwen, Anna and Esther attended her Detroit finishing school.
In a statement released Monday, Gordy paid tribute to a woman who was “unique in every way.”
“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.
“She was tough, but when she got through with them, they were poised, professional … and very thankful.
“ ‘I love you all,’ she’d say, ‘but don’t confuse me with your mother. She’s stuck with you, I’m not! Ladies, remember your gloves, walk with class like you were taught — and always remember, do not protrude the buttocks. One day you will perform for the kings and queens of Europe, but for now we must make the best of it on the circuit of the chit-ter-ling.’
“She was not only smart, but very funny,” said Gordy. “Maxine Powell will always be a great part of the Motown family and legacy. We miss her and will always love her.”
In August, the Motown Historical Museum honored Powell with an event attended by Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and other Motown stars.
“I thank God that she had a chance to be a part of that event and have all of that love showered on her and know how much she was appreciated,” said Robin Terry, board chair of the museum and granddaughter of founder Esther Gordy Edwards.
“The fact that she could still articulate so much of her story, that was the other blessing,” Terry added. “She was very aware of all of the people who were there, of all the love, and it was her opportunity to receive all of that and tell her story.”
Reeves recalled, in August, how Powell was the first person to tell her she was beautiful. “She would tell us that we were all like flowers — some were roses, some were lilies, but that we all had the potential to be beautiful.”
Powell was an integral part of Motown, because it was the ladylike glamour of Motown’s female singers and girl groups and the refined polish of the men that set the Detroit label apart from its scruffier competition.
Most of the young artists signed to Motown grew up within several miles of the company’s office on West Grand Boulevard, so it fell to Powell to hone her “diamonds in the rough.”
“They came out of the neighborhoods, the churches, the high schools, and they weren’t refined,” Terry said. “She was responsible for polishing them, and that’s a big deal.”
Famous for her hats and sharp outfits, the Motown staffer was referred to as “Mrs. Powell” by all, including her boss, Gordy, and she was famous for sharp corrections of what she deemed inappropriate behavior. At a dinner party some years ago for Esther Gordy Edwards, several of the young people, including Edwards’ granddaughter Terry, started dancing. “Mrs. Powell stood up and said, ‘Ladies dance with their feet, not their buttocks,’ ” Terry said.
“She was professional and dignified to the very end,” Terry said. “Miss Powell epitomized a refined, polished lady. That’s what she did and who she was.”
In August, although Powell was frail and had to have help getting around, she still had a few quips for reporters. She recalled how Marvin Gaye once told her that he “didn’t need charm school.”
“It’s a finishing school,” Powell said, correcting him. “Well, I don’t need finishing,” Gaye told her.
“You don’t need as much as some, but you close your eyes when you’re singing, and people think you’re asleep,” said Powell. “And, you slouch. So we’ll work on those two things.”
During Motown star Reeves’ tenure on Detroit City Council, Powell worked as one of her assistants. Today, the City Council paused for a moment of silence in remembrance of her.
Visitation is 2-9 p.m. Thursday at the Swanson Funeral Home, 14751 McNichols, Detroit. On Friday the family hour is at 10 a.m. and funeral service at 11 a.m. at the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, 18700 James Couzens, Detroit.