Motown Records is renowned for being a music superstar making success, but many people do not know what went on behind the scenes to make stars like Dianna Ross, Smokey Robinson and The Temptations rise to the top. We’re taking a look at the Motown Charm School, where artists learnt how to behave, walk and even dress!
Berry Gordy’s two sisters, Gwen and Anna, convinced him that Motown’s “assembly line” for artists needed a department to give them polish and class and they knew the right person to do it. Unlike any other record company at the time, Motown had its very own finishing school run by etiquette expert Maxine Powell. This extraordinary woman worked with everyone from The Supremes to Marvin Gaye to improve their stage presence and help them appear dignified and professional in TV interviews.
“She brought something to Motown that no other record company had. She was a star in her own right – an original. She will always be remembered for her style and class, and she instilled that into the Motown artists by teaching them how to walk, talk and even think with class.”
(Source: The Independent)
Originally born Maxine Blair in Texarkana, Texas, on May 30, 1915, Maxine Powell went on to run the only in-house finishing school at any American Record label. From 1964 till 1969 Powell was responsible for making sure that every Motown Records’ artist had charm, grace and style.
When in Detroit the Motown singers were required to attend a two-hour session where under Powell’s guidance they would work on public speaking, posture and walking, stage presence, etiquette, and personal grooming.
Although she didn’t write any of the hit songs at Motown or play any instruments, Powell and her finishing school were arguably just as important and an essential feature for the record label in the 1960’s.
Diana Ross has described her as: “the person who taught me everything I know” (Source: Flashbak.com) and Martha Reeves said “I don’t think I would have been successful at all without her training” (Source: nytimes.com)
“Everybody walks, but I teach how to glide. I teach how if you drop something, how to pick it up. If your slip comes down around your feet, how to stand in the basic standing position and step out of it smiling, with your hip bones pushed forward and the buttocks pushed under. You never, never protrude the buttocks because it means an ugly gesture, you see? They learned all of those things. I was turned loose to do whatever was necessary to make the artist look first-class.”
The Motown artists were groomed to perform at such venues as the Copacabana, Latin Casting, The Ed Sullivan show as well as many concert venues and TV spots.
In 1969 Powell left Motown and began teaching personal development courses from 1971 until 1985 at Wayne County Community College. Powell lived a long and healthy life and passed away at the age of 98 on October 14th 2013, leaving behind her a legacy.