Maxine Powell, Motown's first lady of charm, dies at 98

Ask any Motown female vocalist, from Diana Ross to Martha Reeves, who taught her more about life, dealing with people and carrying herself in public, and the answer would undoubtedly be Maxine Powell, the woman who Berry Gordy, Jr. charged with teaching artists "class, style and refinement."

Powell died on Monday at Providence Hospital in suburban Detroit at age 98. 

Ask any Motown female vocalist, from Diana Ross to Martha Reeves, who taught her more about life, dealing with people and carrying herself in public, and the answer would undoubtedly be Maxine Powell, the woman who Berry Gordy, Jr. charged with teaching artists "class, style and refinement."

Powell died on Monday at Providence Hospital in suburban Detroit at age 98. 

It is difficult to fully assess the impact that native Chicago finishing school teacher Powell had on the artists of Motown, most of whom grew up poor in Detroit, with little access to "refinement" and the ways of the world. But in her role in "Artist Personal Development" group at Motown, Powell became a tough taskmaster, a second mother to these talented teenagers and young adults and, most of all, a person who emphasized that there was no limit to their potential -- a message that the world didn't always send in the 1960s.  Powell helped instill in these artists a sense of grace, personal accountability and refinement that made them stars who could work a room in Las Vegas as well as a small club in Chicago.

Said Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. in a statement, "She brought something to Motown that no other record company had. She was a star in her own right — an original. She will always be remembered for her style and class, and she instilled that into the Motown artists by teaching them how to walk, talk and even think with class. She was tough, but when she got through with them, they were poised, professional…and very thankful."

One look at the musical landscape today shows that the kind of artist development that Ms. Powell preached is considered old fashioned and rarely followed. But the lack of that personal and professional development of artists has left the musical world poorer and has left young artists with limitations on their careers and, perhaps, their lives.

So many people were essential to the unlikely birth and meteoric rise of Motown a half century ago, and no one should underestimate the role that this small but elegantly strong woman played. Godspeed, Maxine Powell.

By Chris Rizik

 

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