Bertha McNeal, co-founder of Motown's Velvelettes, dies at 82
Bertha Barbee McNeal, who co-founded Motown’s Velvelettes, known for their songs “Needle in a Haystack” and “(He Was) Really Saying Something,” died Thursday, in hospice, in Kalamazoo. She was 82.
McNeal and the Velvelettes were that rarity, an intact Motown group comprised of all original members when they dazzled the audience in sequined gowns in 2019, at the Hitsville Honors celebration for Motown’s 60th anniversary, at Orchestra Hall in Detroit.
The group’s hit “He Was Really Saying Something” was covered by the British group Bananarama, and the Velvelettes were cited by singer Amy Winehouse as a major influence.
“She was an angel. I’ve lost my dearest friend,” said Cal Gill Street, lead singer for the Velvelettes. “She was the group historian, and the glue that kept us together.”
In a statement, the Motown Historical Museum lauded McNeal as “a community leader and educator. … Bertha’s passion was to inspire young girls, particularly the next generation of female talent. She was a faithful supporter of the Motown Museum and participated in many museum events including Hitsville Honors in 2019 and the grand opening of Rocket Plaza this past August. Her kind and sweet presence was always a delight and she was loved by the museum staff and alumni alike.”
McNeal had been in hospice care for several weeks, after her colon cancer had advanced. But she loved teaching, and was still giving piano lessons up to a few weeks before she entered hospice. She last performed with the Velvelettes at Arcadia Creek in downtown Kalamazoo in July.
In early December the Kalamazoo Arts Council honored McNeal and Street with Community Medal of Arts awards, which Street accepted on her friend’s behalf.
McNeal and Street had known each other since 1961, when Bertha was 21 and Cal a 14-year-old ninth grader, and they formed a singing group at Western Michigan University with Cal’s sister, Mildred Gill, and Bertha’s cousin, Norma Barbee.
McNeal never minded that the group’s lead singer, the “boss” who decided their set lists, was a ninth grader. She made up an affectionate nickname for Cal: Carshelan. “She treated me like her younger sister,” Street said.
The Velvelettes’ name may not be as well-known as the Supremes, but that’s not because they weren’t deserving. In fact, at Berry Gordy’s famed Battle of the Stars at the Graystone Ballroom, where he would pit his groups against each other, the Velvelettes beat the Supremes several times. McNeal had a framed poster of the event.
It was more the luck of the draw that the Velvelettes eventually found themselves on the second tier. Unlike girl groups who were laser-focused on music, the Kalamazoo/Flint group were college girls for whom music was fun, but not their only means of survival. Being from outstate also made them a bit more independent from the Motown machine.
Bertha Barbee grew up in Flint, the daughter of Emergine and Rome Barbee. She studied classical piano from the age of 9, and took part in a family singing group, the Barbees, with her cousin Norma. In 1957 the Barbees went to Detroit to record a single, “Que Pasa” (backed with “The Wind”), produced by Mickey Stevenson in his hustling, pre-Motown days. That connection would turn out to be fateful.
An organist from her father’s church suggested that Bertha apply to his alma mater, Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, so she did just that. It was at WMU that she met Mildred Gill, and they took part in singalongs at the student center with friends.
When word spread that top prize in a singing competition would pay $25, Bertha and Mildred recruited Mildred’s sister Cal from Loy Norrix High School, along with her friend Betty Kelley. Bertha’s Flint cousin Norma Barbee rounded out the group. (Kelley left the group later to become a Vandella).
Not only did the nascent Velvelettes win the contest, but they caught the attention of a fellow WMU student, Robert Bullock, who happened to be Esther Gordy Edward’s son (and Berry Gordy’s nephew, and Motown Museum CEO Robin Terry’s father).
Bullock suggested that the girls audition for his uncle in Detroit. One wintry Saturday they got a ride to Detroit from Cal and Mildred’s pastor father, but upon arrival were told by a young woman at Motown’s front desk that there were no auditions on Saturdays. Mickey Stevenson happened to bop into the office, recognized McNeal and Barbee from the ’57 recording session, and everything changed.
As McNeal told me, “Mickey said, ‘What are you girls doing here?’ He looked at that girl behind the desk and said, ‘Hey, let them in!’"
Stevenson, then chief of A&R for Motown, didn’t just sign them; he ended up co-writing a hit for the Velvelettes, the saucy “Needle in a Haystack,” with hotshot young producer Norman Whitfield. The single peaked at number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. The group had recorded “There He Goes” and “That’s the Reason Why” with Stevie Wonder in 1963, but it was the Stevenson-Whitfield force field a year later that got them into the charts.
“I always thought ‘Needle in a Haystack’ was the perfect example of how just one almighty burst of electricity could forever seal an act into Motown history, regardless of anything else they made,” said Motown author/historian Adam White. “It was also Norman (Whitfield)’s first ‘you-better-pay-attention” production, because nobody knew who the Velvelettes were.”
The follow-up single, also produced by Whitfield, “He Was Really Saying Something,” was a major influence on other girl groups, as it prompted the British group Bananarama to do a popular cover version in 1982, which became their biggest hit and inspired other cover versions.
Traveling back and forth from Kalamazoo to Detroit, the Velvelettes learned choreography and deportment at Motown, and were soon sent off on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour.
McNeal and the others were always modest about their place at Motown. “I was in awe of the other Motown groups,” McNeal told me. “These people like Stevie Wonder would walk through the studio, and we were happy to be there. I don’t know if it’s because we were from out of town, but we put them up on a pedestal. We were definitely in awe of Marvin Gaye,” she said, laughing.
Although McNeal was known for her radiant smile and upbeat attitude, Stevenson’s theory was that the Velvelettes, for all their college girl class and reserve, were tougher than other Motown women because most of them were from Flint. “Flint was a rough place back then,” he said. “You had to know how to take care of yourself.”
Maybe, although their resilience probably had more to do with their college backgrounds, and that they had other career options when their Motown careers sputtered, in the ‘70s. They finished their college degrees, were married and had families, and pursued careers—“straight gigs,” as Street puts it.
After her divorce, McNeal finished her bachelor’s degree in music and then earned a master’s degree. She taught in the Kalamazoo public schools for 26 years, and often called her old friend Street to come sing for her classes.
It wasn’t until 1984 that the Velvelettes reunited, at McNeal’s request. She was active in a women’s group, the Concerned Black Women of Kalamazoo roundtable.
McNeal headed up the group’s music workshop, where she was asked, wasn’t she in a Motown group at one time? Could they maybe do a performance?
“She said, well we haven’t sung in quite a while, we all have straight gigs,” Street said. “She called me — I was at the Upjohn company — and said, ‘Kershelan, they want me to ask the Velvelettes to sing.’"
Thanks to McNeal’s persistence, it happened. The women arranged a girl group medley, and that was the beginning of the Velvelettes’ second chance at Motown fame.
Dressed perfectly as glamorous Motown divas, in tune and well-rehearsed, the Velvelettes were always willing to make the long drive to Detroit from Kalamazoo (and Flint), no matter the weather, for any Motown events. They made a point to come when the Motown Historical Museum needed a bit of girl group glamor.
At first, it was at Esther Gordy Edwards’ request, but after granddaughter Robin Terry took over, she would call. Terry is the daughter of Robert Bullock, the Velvelettes’ long-ago WMU classmate.
So it was, when McNeal entered hospice, Robin Terry asked to do a Facetime with her. Street set it up, and held the phone for the ailing McNeal.
“Robin was eternally grateful for that opportunity to tell Bertha how much she loved her and valued her,” said Street.
"Bertie was a precious lady,” said Street. “I never heard any profanity, I never heard her speak ill of anybody, even if she was upset. She would get beyond that, like an angel here on earth. In the group, she was the glue that kept us from choking.”
McNeal is survived by a son, Marty McNeal, and a daughter, Melva Payton; a granddaughter, Cydni Payton, and grandson, Spencer Payton.
A Public Viewing will be held 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 28, at the Stones Church, 1225 W. Paterson in Kalamazoo. Family and friends are invited to attend a Celebration of Life Service to be held Thursday at 11 a.m. at the Stones Church, 1225 W. Paterson, in Kalamazoo, 49007.
Doors of the church will be open at 10:30 a.m. A mask is required to enter the church and social distancing is also required. A private interment for the family will be held at Sunset Hills Cemetery in Flint. You may leave words of comfort to the family at www.harperfuneral.com
Susan Whitall is a veteran music journalist and the author of “Women of Motown.” You can reach her at susanwhitall.com.