Remembering The Woman Who Gave Motown Its Charm : Code Switch Maxine Powell, who ran a finishing school for Motown's musicians, died this weekend at the age of 98. Her work polishing young artists for mainstream exposure was a big reason the legendary record label was able to integrate the airwaves.
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Remembering The Woman Who Gave Motown Its Charm

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Remembering The Woman Who Gave Motown Its Charm

Remembering The Woman Who Gave Motown Its Charm

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The world is a little less elegant today. Maxine Powell, Motown's matron of refinement, died yesterday in a Detroit suburb. Powell made a career of buffing the rough edges for Motown's stable of stars and polishing them enough to perform before royalty. She was 98 years old. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

MAXINE POWELL: Everybody walks, but I teach how to glide.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Maxine Powell was well-known in Detroit before anyone had ever heard of Diana Ross or The Supremes.


BATES: Miss Powell ran a modeling and finishing school that many of the city's black young women attended, especially those who wanted move up in the world. Fledgling record impresario Berry Gordy Jr.'s sister had been one of her models. So when Gwen Gordy urged her brother to ask Maxine Powell to work with the talent he'd assembled at Motown - acts like The Supremes, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Martha Reeves - he did, as she recalled to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in 2009.


BATES: The musical talent was there, but the presentation needed a little refining. Gordy wanted his singers to stand apart from other labels. He wanted them to be able to play not only big urban venues but on Broadway and in Las Vegas. Enter Maxine Powell, whose lessons included everything from elocution - always yes, never yeah - to posture.

POWELL: With your hipbones pushed forward and the buttocks pushed under. You never, never protrude the buttock because it means an ugly gesture.

BATES: Hear that, twerkers? Soon the value of Miss Powell's work became evident to everyone, including Berry Gordy.

POWELL: He began to see the difference because I teach class and class will turn the heads of kings and queens.

BATES: Such as Queen Elizabeth's and the Queen Mother's when The Supremes performed at the London Palladium. Eventually, several Motown groups would play another kind of palace: Caesars, in Las Vegas. All of Miss Powell's ladies remembered their training. Their wigs were always impeccable. They exited cars like Princess Grace. The men - Smokey Robinson, Levi Stubbs, Marvin Gaye - exuded a kind of suave, reined-in sexuality that appealed to black audiences and didn't frighten white ones.

The artists that Miss Powell worked with didn't all start out with advantages. She told WGBH earlier this year their past wasn't important.

POWELL: You know, they came from humble beginnings and some were rude and crude and from the street and the projects. But with me, it isn't where you come from. It's where you're going.

BATES: And where they went, with Maxine Powell's guidance, was to the top of the charts.

On Monday, surrounded by family and friends, Maxine Powell left the world the way she'd moved through it and taught others to - with dignity and grace. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


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