Fifty years ago this January, a budding young songwriter and record producer named Berry Gordy founded a small record label in Detroit. Tamla Records soon became Motown Record Corporation, and Gordy's ear for talent — and his business savvy — helped make Motown one of the most successful record labels ever.
Talent agent Maxine Powell was also behind the scenes. When Gordy started Motown in January 1959, Powell was already operating a modeling and finishing school in Detroit. In 1964, Powell was tapped to assist in artist development, coaching singers such as Marvin Gaye and groups including The Temptations in the finer graces of performing both on and off stage. She spoke to Rebecca Roberts about her role at the company.
Critic and author Gary Graff has covered music in Detroit for many years. He notes that though the biggest Motown hits are widely known, many great records never saw the same level of success. He tells the stories behind six overlooked Motown singles for NPR Music. (Adapted from an interview with producer Zoe Chace.)
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Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
REBECCA ROBERTS, Host:
Fifty years ago, Berry Gordy took an $800 loan from his family and turned it into Motown Records.
(Soundbite of song "Baby Love")
Ms. DIANA ROSS (Singer, The Supremes): (Singing) Ooh, baby love, my baby love, I need you, oh, how I need you. But all you do is treat me bad...
ROBERTS: At Motown, stars didn't just fall from the sky. They were made. And one of the creators was Maxine Powell. She ran Motown's finishing school. Berry Gordy found the voices; Maxine Powell made them ready for the stage. To mark Motown's 50th birthday tomorrow, Ms. Powell is joining us from member station WDET in Detroit. Thank you so much for being here.
Ms. MAXINE POWELL (Former Etiquette Consultant, Motown Records): You're perfectly welcome.
ROBERTS: You ran a modeling school in Detroit before working full time for Motown. How did you meet the Gordys and end up as their etiquette consultant?
Ms. POWELL: This is what happened. Mr. Gordy was very busy with the writers and learning how to run the business. His sister Gwen, who had been one of my models, anytime something happened that wasn't up to par, she'd say to Mr. Gordy, if you had Maxine Powell here, that wouldn't happen. And I closed my finishing school and opened a finishing school in Motown. And I said, well, we're going to develop the artists. They're like flowers. That's how I teach. I think of people as flowers. They're all different, but all somebody and have something to offer. He began to see the difference because I teach class, and class will turn the heads of kings and queens. Class, style and refinement - it's outstanding wherever you go.
ROBERTS: Let me ask you about an artist like Diana Ross. Tell me how she was when she first came to you, and what sort of things you were able to teach her.
Ms. POWELL: Well, when Diana Ross came in, she knew where she wanted to go. So she came in a bit snooty. And I worked with her to show that there was a vast difference than being snooty, and being gracious and classy, because snooty people are insecure, and that's what I worked with her. She brought me, Diana Ross, on stage with her Broadway show, a rhythm and blues on Broadway that had never been heard of before. I was in New York there in the audience. I just wanted to see if she was doing the same thing that I taught - that certain class and certain style you have to have to continue to move forward.
And when she ended her show, she brought me on stage: Ms. Powell, come up here. She introduced me to her audience as the person that taught her everything she knew. And I won't forget that. And when I went backstage, she said, Ms. Powell, every time I'm on stage, you're out there with me.
ROBERTS: What sort of tips do you give an artist on stage?
Ms. POWELL: Body language. Everybody walks, but I teach how to glide. I teach how if you drop something, how to pick it up. If your slip comes down around your feet, how to stand in the basic standing position and step out of it smiling, with your hip bones pushed forward and the buttocks pushed under. You never, never protrude the buttocks because it means an ugly gesture, you see? They learned all of those things. I was turned loose to do whatever was necessary to make the artist look first-class. Now class is difficult to come by, white or black. I had the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye. I didn't do anything for Stevie. Stevie was always beautiful. Everybody doesn't have class, but you can develop style and then refinement.
ROBERTS: Maxine Powell is the creator of the Maxine Powell System, and she ran the finishing school for the stars associated with Motown Records. Thank you so much.
Ms. POWELL: And thank you for inviting me.
(Soundbite of song "You Are The Sunshine of My Life")
Mr. STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) You are the sunshine of my life, That's why I'll always be around.
ROBERTS: And there's more from Motown's 50th on our Web site, nprmusic.org, where Detroit music critic Gary Graff shares his playlist of overlooked Motown gems. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.