DETROIT — She didn’t sing a note or write a lick of a lyric, but Smokey Robinson contends that Maxine Powell was as essential to Motown Records’ operation as the legendary label’s songwriters, producers and musicians.
Powell was in charge of the artists’ personal development. And Robinson, a bard of the American romantic songbook and one of the chief architects of “the Motown sound” produced in Detroit from the late 1950s to the early ’70s, paid tribute to Powell this week during an invitation-only event at the former Hitsville, U.S.A., studio in Detroit that now serves as the Motown Historical Museum.
“She was such an important, integral part of what we were doing here at Motown,” said Robinson, who has upcoming Michigan gigs in the Detroit area and Grand Rapids and is working on an album of duets with various artists due out next year.
“It didn’t matter who you became during the course of your career: how many hits you had, how well your name was known around the world,” Robinson said. “Two days a week when you were back in Detroit, you had to go to artists’ development. It was mandatory. You went there and learned so many things about being in show businesses.”
Powell directed the label’s Artists Development Department, also known as “Motown’s Finishing School.” She guided many, including Robinson’s Miracles, the Jackson Five and the Supremes.
She emphasized how artists should carry themselves, treat people and dress. And the training school was the only one of its kind offered at any record label, according to Powell and Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who paid tribute to her via videotape. Gordy joked that he still remembers many of Powell’s aphorisms, including “Do not protrude the buttocks,” and “Do not confuse me with your parents; they’re stuck with you. I’m not.”
“You had style,” Gordy said. “You gave them class.”
Powell came to Detroit from her native Chicago, where she had been an actress and dramatic reader. She opened a finishing and modeling school in Detroit, believing, as she says, she “could offer some class and style to Detroit.”
The lessons have long since stuck with singer Martha Reeves, who said she retained Powell during her four-year term on the Detroit City Council that ended in 2009. Powell visited schools and retirement homes to develop poise and pride in students and residents, Reeves said.
Reeves remembered going through those lessons with her group, The Vandellas, alongside the Supremes and others.
“We thought we knew everything because we could sing and dance, but she taught us how to stand and how to carry ourselves,” Reeves said.
Powell, who adamantly refuses to reveal her age but is well into her 90s, told the crowd that she “will teach until there’s no breath left in my body.”
“I love all the Motown artists,” she said. “This has been a blessing. I thank God for allowing me to be here.”