Motown’s Finishing School

Monday, December 12, 2016.

The music of Motown has entertained Americans for generations, but many fans might not know the intriguing history of the famous record company. Broadway smash “Motown: The Musical,” headed to The Smith Center in mid-January, delves into many of these untold stories.

There are still more sides of Motown to discover, however, including the creation of the company’s finishing school.

Berry Gordy, Motown’s visionary leader, methodically plotted the company’s course. Aiming to build a company that broke down barriers and achieved mass-market success, he focused on presenting artists known not only for their talent, but for the classy and professional way they conducted themselves on- and off-stage.

As a result, he decided Motown should have a finishing school - something no other record company has ever done.

The Power of Powell

Gordy’s sister Gwen suggested hiring Maxine Powell to supply the finish. Known for her elegance and class, Powell had established the successful Maxine Powell Finishing and Modeling School in 1951, with Gwen and Anna, another Gordy sister, among her students.

Powell closed her school to join the Motown team in 1964. She taught what she called “personal development and growth,” not simple etiquette.

“Even though what she taught had to do with how you walked and how you sat, she was teaching people how to just be,” says Robin Terry, chairwoman of the Motown Museum. “She believed that if you worked on what’s on the inside, it would show up on the outside, and that made you more dignified, more graceful.”

Polishing Artists

Most of Motown’s artists came from humble beginnings. Powell saw them as diamonds in the rough that just needed polishing.

“Some of them were from the projects, some were using street language, some were rude and crude,” the late Powell once said in an interview. “With me, it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.”

Powell mentored her charges in social graces and conduct, and worked closely with choreographer Cholly Atkins to ensure the women’s dance routines were ladylike.

“She told the artists she was preparing them to perform before kings and queens. The response from many of them was, ‘We don’t care about that. All we want is a hit record,’” says Allen Rawls, the museum’s interim CEO. “But the proof is in the pudding, when you see a picture of the Supremes being presented to the Queen Mum. So I think all of them, to a person, appreciated the mentorship that they got from her.”

A Legend

Powell became one of the most beloved people in Detroit.

A few years ago, Rawls and his wife escorted Powell to a show about the early days of Motown.

“About a dozen Motown alumni showed up, and they were introduced at the end of the production,” Rawls says. “Then they introduced Maxine Powell, and she got a standing ovation. She’d become a legend.”

“Motown: The Musical” runs at The Smith Center from January 17 – 22. For tickets and more information, visit: www.thesmithcenter.com/event/motown-the-musical/

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