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Maxine Powell, Motown etiquette coach, passes away

@graffonmusic, Facebook.com/Gary Graff on Music

Posted: Monday, October 14, 2013

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Maxine Powell didn't make Motown's artists great.

But she surely made them better.

Powell -- who died on Monday, Oct. 14, at 98 from natural causes at Providence Hospital in Southfied -- was hired by Berry Gordy Jr. to run a finishing school for his Motown empire, teaching the company's performers all sorts of etiquette from fashion to proper dining habits to interview techniques. Motown was one of few labels to employ such a figure, and certainly the only company to use someone so intensively.

"I taught young artists the life skills they needed to succeed," Powell once said. "I taught class, style and refinement. I told them they were being taught to stand before kings and queens at Buckingham Palace and the White House, and they did."

"Mrs. Powell was the one who groomed us," Smokey Robinson, one of Motown's founding artists and a onetime company vice-president, noted during a tribute to Powell that was held Aug. 26 at the Motown Historical Museum. "She was such an integral and important part of what we did. It didn't matter how many hits you had or how well you were known around the world, two days a week at Artists Development -- that was mandatory.

"She was so important to what we were trying to do in developing our artists."

Powell, a native of Texarkana, Texas, was raised in Chicago, where she began her career as an actress when she was 14 years old. Moving to Detroit she opened the Maxine Powell Finishing School working with young African-American models -- including Gordy's sister Gwen Gordy, who became the U.S. automotive industry's first African-American model. Gwen suggested her brother bring Powell to Motown to work with the artists.

Berry Gordy recalled that Powell used to tell the artists, "Don't confuse me with your parents. They're stuck with you, I'm not" and that she would warn Motown's female singers, "always remember, do not protrude the buttocks." Sending Motown's artists on the road, she lectured 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."

The Four Tops' Abdul "Duke" Fakir, who called Powell "one of the great moving parts of Motown," laughed as he noted that Powell was "still teaching" as recently as this summer; when he asked her age, she responded, "Boy, did your mother not teach you anything? You don't ask a lady her age!"

Powell, though frail, appeared elegant and poised at the August tribute, receiving a bouquet of roses as well as a framed photo of her on tour with the company in England during the 1960s. Funeral arrangements have not yet been determined.

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