Maxine Powell passed away last Monday, October 14th, in Southfield, Michigan. She was 98. Although she isn’t nearly as well-known as the giant talents the label produced or the house band, The Funk Brothers (that backed Motown’s musical stars), she contributed equally to guarantee their success and the success of the label.
Motown Records showcased young, fresh-faced talent and won a huge audience of young white fans in the 1960s. Unlike the earlier genre known as “race records”, which featured edgier, more dangerous characters like Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf, or Bullmoose Jackson, Motown had a more manicured sound. It was consistent because the backing band was usually The Funk Brothers. Then, there was Maxine Powell.
She showed the young and inexperienced artists how to dress, talk, sit, travel, and every imaginable etiquette to be savvy and stylish. In the words of an obituary in the New York Times, “She was tough, but when she got through with them, they were poised, professional, and thankful.” Her young students “were scrappy and untried, whom she polished with the finesse of a diamond cutter”.
Before moving to Motown Records, Powell groomed young people who became the first African-American models in Detroit automobile ads.
Groups like Martha and the Vandellas, The Miracles, The Temptations, The Supremes, and Marvin Gaye all benefitted immeasurably by following her directions. Some balked: Diana Ross wanted to wear outlandishly long fake eyelashes and was turned down. Marvin Gaye liked to sing with his eyes closed, also verboten. The Supremes got down and dirty with a booty-shaking dance called the Shake. Powell showed them how to do it but still appear ladylike, yet sexy.
She taught her famous pupils proper table manners, how to speak impeccably, how to walk, correct posture, stage comportment. Without her, the stars of Motown Records would never have become the major successes they did. It was not only the matching outfits and choreography that made Motown acts so successful; it was the watchful eye of Maxine Powell who micromanaged it all.
Maxine Powell was a one-woman finishing school. Martha Reeves (of Martha and the Vandellas) said, “…every asset of my personality has been by her influence.”
Here is an interview done with Ms. Powell when she was in her 90s at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She teaches and exudes class.