DETROIT – Honoring the mentor who taught them how to “perform for kings and queens,” some Motown luminaries paid tribute to Maxine Powell on Monday night.
In a warm, nostalgic reception at the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit, artists including Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and the Four Tops’ Duke Fakir gathered to greet and applaud the woman who ran Motown’s internal finishing school and polished the label’s young “diamonds in the rough,” as she put it Monday.
While somewhat frail and unsteady in her late 90s, Powell was the picture of grace and refinement in a stylish ensemble and what Robinson called her trademark red hat. The private event, held for more than 100 museum donors, started upstairs amid the Hitsville gallery before moving down to the famed Studio A for an hourlong ceremony.
There Mrs. Powell, as they affectionately called her throughout the night, held court as well-wishers recounted her days of leading Motown’s stars through the paces: balancing books on their heads for good posture, teaching them how to properly exit cars, getting the chewing gum out of boys’ mouths and the right diction into the girls’ mouths.
“I teach class, style and refinement,” Powell said.
“It shows to this day,” Fakir said.
Powell, a Texas native, ran a finishing and modeling school for young Detroit black women before being enlisted by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. in 1964 for the label’s artist development wing on West Grand Boulevard, across the street from the Hitsville studio and site of Monday’s reception.
She reminisced about her days working with artists such as Marvin Gaye, whom she scolded for poor posture and singing with eyes closed.
Gordy spoke by video, declaring that Powell has “style like I’ve never seen” and recalling some of her common “Maxine Powell-isms,” including her command to Motown’s female artists: “Remember, do not protrude the buttocks.”
“The Motown legacy would not be what it is today if not for you,” Gordy said.
“I love you, too,” Powell mouthed to the screen as Gordy wrapped up.
Attendees included Motowners Barrett Strong, Cal Street (Velvelettes), Carolyn Crawford, guitarist Dennis Coffey, arranger Paul Riser and Annie Jamerson, widow of late bassist James Jamerson, along with former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and his wife, Trudi Archer.
Robinson greeted star-struck museum staffers and had an emotional moment with Joan Rogers, widow of his late Miracles mate, Bobby Rogers.