Although her official title was as a director of Motown's artist development department, Maxine Powell was much more than her role suggested. "Motown owes a great debt to Maxine," says Ruthie Brown, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's director of community programs and friend of Powell. "The artists knew what she was trying to do, and deep down, they wanted her refinement. They mimicked the image of the average American teenager – white, black, it didn't matter. The crossover was extremely successful. Motown was 'the sound of young America," and Maxine helped Berry Gordy get that image across." Powell passed away on October 14, 2013. She was 98.
Powell worked with Motown artist during a pivotal period in Motown's meteoric rise, from 1964 to 1969, when she helped shaped the public – and often private – personalities of the Detroit label's biggest names. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown Records, said that Powell “brought something to Motown that no other record company had,” adding of his artists, “She was tough, but when she got through with them, they were poised, professional and very thankful.”
Born in Texarkana, Texas, on May 30, 1915, Powell was raised by an aunt in Chicago. Powell moved to Detroit in the 1940s, where she founded her namesake Finishing and Modeling School in 1951. Among its credits, the Maxine Powell school helped place the first black models in the automotive campaigns of the Motor City's biggest marques.
"I believe everybody is a star and everybody is someone, so I want you to feel like that," Powell explained of her earliest days working with artists at Motown. "I said we're going to open up a department that has nothing to do with the records… you're going to be trained to appear in number one places around the country, and even before the king and the queen. These youngsters said, 'you must be out of your mind. All we wanted was a hit record.'"
Powell did not mince words with her impressionable pupils, explaining to them: "Some of the things that I'm going to make you aware of or whatever, you heard before from your parents or from someone, but don't confuse me with your mother now, because she's stuck with you and I'm not."
Diana Ross had previously described Powell as “the person who taught me everything I know.” Brown recalls a story about Powell's advice to one aspiring performer: "She told Marvin Gaye 'you would be a handsome man if you sat up straight; and you close your eyes when you're singing, so you're not getting enough sleep." Both Gaye and Ross are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees.
"I never had a cross word with Motown artists," added Powell during a February 1997 interview at the Museum alongside the Velvelettes and interviewer Ruthie Brown. "I had the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Velvelettes, the Marvelettes, Diana Ross… Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell – just all of them, because I only tried to help them."
Motown is represented in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Cities and Sounds exhibit, Detroit - Dancin’ in the Street: 1962 - 1971. Plan a visit to the Rock Hall today.