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Motown’s doyenne of charm and etiquette, Maxine Powell, passes at 98

Herb Boyd | 10/17/2013, 11:49 a.m.

For Maxine Powell, the doyenne of style and grace, an entertainer or performer had to exhibit a certain savoir faire and stage presence to win an audience. These were the attributes she promoted with charm and passion at Motown, preparing the rough-hewn but talented singers for renown. Powell, 98, died Monday at Providence Hospital in Southfield, Mich., a suburb of Detroit.

She died “peacefully, surrounded by Motown family and friends,” a spokesperson told the Detroit Free Press. Powell had been in declining health since the spring and slipped into a coma at the hospital on Saturday.

The fact that she was surrounded by friends and relatives was not unusual for Powell. She began gathering an entourage of teachers, students, clients and colleagues from her early years in Chicago, where she studied at the John Robert Powers Modeling School.

Born Maxine Blair on May 30, 1924, in Texarkana, Texas, Powell pursued a career in cosmetology (much to her family’s chagrin), and by the late 1940s, she was earning a living as a makeup artist and manicurist, after setting aside her own aspirations for the stage as an actress, singer and dancer.

In 1948, she visited Detroit for a weekend and stayed at the famed Gotham Hotel. It led to her employment there as a manicurist, and she remained in the city.

Three years later, she was on her own, and she opened the city’s first African-American modeling agency. Many of her students over the next decade or so were professional models for the various automobile companies—jobs she helped procure for them.

Powell’s association with Berry Gordy began in the early 1950s when his sister, Gwen, was one of Powell’s students. Gordy’s company often printed the programs and posters for Powell’s fashion galas.

This business-to-business connection soon blossomed into something more productive when Gordy launched his record company in the late ʼ50s, and by 1964, having closed her agency, Powell joined Gordy as a consultant.

Soon, Powell’s involvement in the company developed into its Department of Artist Development, and she began distilling the etiquette, decorum, posture and presentation of songs that would enhance the careers of Diana Ross, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves and practically all of the Motown performers.

For two hours a day, she grilled the performers, always reminding them that she was getting them ready to perform at “the White House and Buckingham Palace,” as she once told a reporter. “They were 20 years old, and all they wanted was a hit record. I told them, ‘I’m teaching you skills for life.’” Her instructions to Gaye were particularly memorable.

She told Gaye, “You don’t need as much training as some of them. But you sing with your eyes closed. We have to work on that. And you’re so handsome, I want to be sure you use every ounce of your body in walking … and then I showed him how to do it.”

Powell’s sense of perfection jelled with Gordy’s vision of refinement. “She brought something to Motown that no other record company had,” Gordy said on Monday in a statement. “She was a star in her own right—an original.”

That originality was sometimes dispensed with a stern reprimand, but always with a sense of love and dignity. “She enjoyed life,” said former Supreme Mary Wilson, one of the Motown singers to benefit from her tutelage. “She loved being out there.”

Wilson, who spoke to Powell by phone during her illness, added that Powell imparted more than “just the tools of movement and the gowns. These were tools for us as human beings.”

A memorial service is planned for Friday in Detroit at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, and the funeral will follow at Swanson Funeral Home.