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Motown alumni pay tribute to etiquette coach

@graffonmusic, Facebook.com/Gary Graff on Music

Posted: Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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DETROIT -- Maxine Powell, Motown's famed etiquette coach, viewed the record company's artists as "diamonds in the rough."

On Monday, Aug. 26, some of those artists came back to Hitsville USA to treat her like gold.

Powell was honored at a special reception at the Motown Historical Museum, where Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, the Four Tops Abdul "Duke" Fakir, the Velvelettes' Carolyn Street and Carolyn Crawford took turns praising Powell for being, as Fakir noted, "one of the great moving parts of Motown." They were joined by behind-the-scenes figures such as guitarist Dennis Coffey, songwriter Barrett Strong and producer-arranger Paul Riser, as well as former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and a select group of museum patrons and friends.

"She was such an integral and important part of what we did," Robinson, a onetime vice-president at Motown, said during the 50-minute ceremony held in Studio A, where so many of the artists Powell counseled recorded their hits. "It didn't matter how many hits you had or how well known you were around the world, two days a week at Artist Development -- that was mandatory. Mrs. Powell was the one who groomed us. She was so important to what we were trying to d in developing our artists."

Powell came to Motown from her own finishing school in Detroit, where she helped company founder Berry Gordy Jr.'s sister Gwen become the automobile industry's first black model. Motown was, in fact, the only major record company to employ a full-time etiquette coach like her. Robinson said that Powell "taught us everything -- how to stand up straight, how to put your tie on right, how to walk" and "to be prepared for any situation and look good doing it."

In a video testimonial, Berry Gordy talked about his favorite "Maxine Powell-isms," including telling Motown's female performers "always remember, do not protrude the buttocks" and also informing the artists, "Don't confuse me with your parents. They're stuck with you. I'm not." He remembered that when Motown sent its first tour on the road, Powell told the artists that "one day you will be performing for the kings and queens of Europe, but for now you'll have to make the best of it on the circuit of chit-il-lings."

Street called Powell "a treasure" who "put the class and the etiquette and all the good things into the artists (at Motown). All the things you see and all we are is because of Mrs. Powell. Reeves talked about how during her four years on the Detroit City Council Powell helped her with senior care visits, while Fakir noted that Powell is "still teaching;" at a recent meeting he asked her age, and she responded, 'Boy, did your mother not teach you anything? You don't ask a lady her age!' "

Coffey, meanwhile, said that Motown's musicians, the Funk Brothers, never had to fall out for Powell's classes. "They didn't have enough time to teach us how to behave," he explained with a smile.

Powell -- who, though frail, appeared elegant and poised as the artists spoke to her -- made some brief, prepared remarks thanking Gordy as well as museum chairperson Robin Terry. She received a bouquet of roses as well as a framed photo of her on tour with the company in England during the 1960s.

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