Rock 'n' Role Model
10/13/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
Back In the '60s, when Motown, the legendary Detroit-based recording company, was in its prime, Maxine Powell ran its finishing school. The founder of Detroit's first black modeling agency, Powell, now 61, was hired in 1964 by Motown president Berry Gordy Jr. to take his stable of naive but gifted teenagers and teach them how to walk, talk, sit, dress and act like the stars they were rapidly becoming. Charming and stylish, Powell now conducts a personal development course at Detroit's Wayne County Community College. She occasionally flashed a schoolmarm's withering glare as she described what it was like teaching Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye how to move and groove gracefully.
When we opened the school at Motown, we didn't have a name for it, but later we called it the Motown Artist Development Finishing School. It described what we were doing. Each person was an individual and we wanted to bring out the best in each one.
The first day we were all sitting around in a circle. There was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas. Stevie Wonder and the Marvelettes were there. Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell and Gladys Knight and the Pips came later.
I told them, "You are going to learn to apply yourself. You may have had a hit record, but you are not the greatest singer in the world. Singing and dancing are nothing new, especially around our race. So you have to make what you do special. You are going to be good enough to perform for kings."
Most of them were thinking, "What is that woman talking about? All we want is a hit record." Don't forget, these were kids. They came from the street and the projects. They were rude and crude-acting. They didn't know how to look you in the eye or shake hands. They were diamonds in the rough.
There were a million things I taught them, especially stage technique. You never turn your back on the audience. You never let your buttocks protrude. You walk a straight line when you go across the stage. With Diana and the girls, we worked on mike technique. You do not hold the mike so close and open your mouth so wide it looks like you're going to swallow it. We also worked on pleasant expression. In the old days, when they sang Baby Love, they'd close their eyes and make funny faces. I said, "No one's going to pay good money to see you acting like you're singing in your sleep." This was especially true for Diana. I would ask, "Why do you make those faces?" She'd say, "I'm feeling the song. I'm souling." I said, "Go home and soul and knock yourself out in front of the mirror so you can see how unpleasant you look."
Another time, the girls were doing a new dance. I asked, "What are you doing?" They said, "It's called the Shake. You may not know it." I said, "Yes, I know about it, but you are protruding the buttocks. Whenever you do a naughty step like the Shake, add some class to it. Instead of shaking and acting tough you should roll your buttocks under and keep smiling all the time." Then I showed them. They were shocked that I could do it and at how much better it looked my way.
I worked with the artists on all these things. At the same time, we were building confidence. I taught them how to give an interview. If there were things going on that they did not like, that was not the public's business. Telling the press doesn't solve any problems, so they learned to become problem solvers instead of complainers. Sometimes Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas and some of the others would act moody, but I wouldn't let them get away with it. They'd say, "I got out on the wrong side of the bed." I would say, "There is no wrong side. The problem is you. Who do you think is going to make you rich by buying your records if you're going to be ugly to them?" The other thing about Martha is that, early on, she liked her music loud, so sometimes she ended up almost screaming. Finally I took her aside and explained that only people who can't sing have the band play real loud. I guess Martha was shy and that kind of stuff was a cover-up.
The Temptations had a different problem. When we were going to open for the first time at a local club they said, "Oh, Miss Powell, we're not ready. Can't we have another week of training?" I said, "You're about as ready as you're ever going to be," and they did a fantastic job. But when they opened at the Copacabana they had problems. There was no stage. You appear right on the floor, and if you're popular they put out more tables and you have even less room. The Temptations said, "We don't think we can go out and perform." I told them, "You're going to have to build enough confidence so that you don't have to hop and jump around like you usually do. You can't be perspiring and have it flying in people's food or drink." And they practiced and learned.
Stevie Wonder, on the other hand, was always talking positive. You never thought of him as being blind. I guess he was born that way, and he could get along just fine. He was always working. One time we were driving to Philadelphia to appear on Dick Clark, and all the way there Stevie sang or played that harmonica. Lordy! We'd put our hands over our ears and say, "Oh, please, Stevie!" We loved him. I didn't change anything about him.
Part of my job was to buy the artists' clothes. I tried to pick colors and styles that would enhance their good points. For instance, Diana Ross thought she was too thin. I didn't want her to have a complex about her size so I told her, "You just don't have a lot of flesh on your bones. You will wear just normal straight dresses because you are very shapely. You will not wear full dresses." And she did not.
I insisted that the girls wear bras and girdles. Not girdles with stays or anything. A little elastic piece so they didn't wiggle. I didn't have complete control over how they looked, however. Like their wigs. The girls wore them because we didn't have time for them to go to beauty salons. But I thought the wigs were too much and made their heads look too large.
I always told the artists that no one wanted to pay to see a bum. I said, "If you do ugly things, then you're going to have to pay for it." In those days it was smoking weed or getting drunk. They were young and had to be guided into a wholesome way of life. After a performance, I made all the drinks. Melvin Franklin of the Temptations said you had to have five of my drinks before you ever felt anything.
After a performance the artists saw no one for 20 minutes. I didn't care if it was the President of the United States. The artists were wringing wet when they left the stage. They also learned to be gracious. I always told them, "Fans are fickle. They can make you great today and tear you down tomorrow." So when they got compliments, I taught them to say, "Thank you very much, but we're still developing. I hope the next time you see us we'll do even better." I went up to the Temptations after their reunion a couple of years ago and told them they were magnificent. They said, "Thank you, Miss Powell, but we're still growing!" and they laughed and laughed.
Sometimes the artists thought the things I taught them were silly. One day I was teaching them how to sit on stools. The Supremes said, "We don't go to bars, why should we sit on a stool?" I said, "A lady with class can sit on a garbage pail and look good." About a month later, the girls appeared on The Mike Douglas Show. He used stools. They were thrilled.
I know this may sound like I'm patting myself on the back, but I never had a tough student. I never got angry and I didn't have any failures. I told the artists what I wanted to do for them, and they were behind me 100 percent. I treated them like top artists, because that's how I saw them.
One of my proudest days was when I went to see Diana perform on Broadway in 1976. I hadn't seen her in about 10 years. I guess someone told her I was there because at the end of the show she hollered from the stage, "Miss Powell, please come up here." The place was packed. I went onstage and she kissed me and introduced me as "the lady who taught me everything I know." I was so proud. Then privately she told me, "I want you to know, every time I'm onstage, you're out there with me." I'll never forget that.