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Interview with Maxine Powell [Part 1 of 2]

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Interview with Maxine Powell [Part 1 of 2]
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Powell, Maxine, Rock and Roll, Etiquette, Motown
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Interviewer:
Tell me briefly why you were hired by Berrys Gordy to work with the Motown artists and what your job was.
Powell:
Ahm, you don't want me, I, I don't have to ask the question. You don't want me to state my name or anything? Just start?
Interviewer:
Just start.
Powell:
Just start to talk. Well, ahm, I had a finishing and a modeling school and it was quite popular. And, ah, I had about three female models and a couple of male models and a little boy and a little girl. And we worked for Chrysler, this was in the fifties, Chrysler, Packard and Dodge. And, ah, which was unusual at that time because things were quite different than they are today. And, ah, ahm, I was also a producer and I had an annual show once a year. And, ah, I did a souvenir booklet and I wanted to find someone that did offset work and because I had worked with three artists; one for the cover and, the, ah, and two other artists, they did the inside, the ads. And someone said to me that the Gordy Company, the Gordy Printing Company was the best and they did excellent work. So there's in Detroit here, there's a street called Farnesworth and St. Adeline. So I went over and I met the delightful Mrs. Esther Edwards and, ah, she and her brother Fuller Gordy were in the printing business together. And they were elated over this job, they had never seen anything like it before. And that's how I got to know the Gordys. Well I didn't know the Gordys were just Esther and her husband, he was a state representative, George Edwards. And I invited them as my guests for the show. That went on for three or four years and then, ahm, ahm, George, Esther's husband decided to run for a seat on the Detroit City Council. And I had this huge ball, ah, ahm, building, the Ferry, it was called the Ferry Center here in Detroit and, ah, it had a large ballroom, one held about 500 and the downstairs held about 400, private party room that would have held 50 a couple of them and a banquet kitchen, a bar that held 75 people and five office space. So one of the office was empty and, ah, the person had just moved out and we, ah, and I donated that office for George's headquarters. He decided, even though he was a state representative, that he wanted to run for a seat on the Detroit City Council. So then his wife, Esther Gordy Edwards became the campaign manager. And she did such an excellent job she never did it before that the governor wanted her to run his campaign. So then naturally the Gordy family is a close-knit family. So all of them came in to help with the campaign. And they were amazed at the building, it was absolutely beautiful, the ballroom floors looked like a bowling alley. And everything was very, very beautiful. And, ah, the mother, Mrs. Bertha Gordy, Senior was interested in personal development that I teach. So she took my course. There was no Motown at this particular time. And her daughter that passed away took my course and Esther. And then they have a younger daughter Gwen Gordy, she's a charmer, and she became one of my models. So that's how and then they were quite interested that, ah, in, in, in the fifties that I had models that modeled. You know I, I don't think of color, I think that anyone wants a master of their skill and be successful knows no color. So that's how I taught. So they were great, I _____ around the world with anybody and, ah, so they were very impressed, the Gordys at this particular time. There was no Motown. So...
Interviewer:
Tell me about your first experience, when you started working with some of the artists.
Powell:
Well what happened… was that before I went into Motown when Barry wrote a song called, "Lonely Teardrops" and Jackie Wilson was the artist. And they showcased him in my downstairs ballroom as a fundraiser for George Edwards' campaign. So any time they had an artist after they got going before I went to Motown, they would have me come and watch the artist perform and then tell them what the artist needed. So when I did join the company, ah, in 1964, ah, they asked me to open up a finishing school there - so I did. I opened in 1964 a finishing school, Motown Finishing School, and I worked with the artists on, first thing we worked with was - who are you? And, what makes you tick? I don't teach singing. So I also told the artists that, ah, they would, this department would groom and polish them so that they could appear in number one places around the country and even before the king and queen. Of course the youngsters, you know they came from humble beginning and some were rude and crude from the street and the projects. But with me, it isn't where you come from is where you're going. So I told them where they would be appearing. And they laughed and said that I was out of my mind because all they wanted was a hit record. And this is what we did, we worked with developing class. First, who are you? And, what makes you tick? And, ah, I helped them to eliminate shyness and to, ah, get rid of any hang-ups because oftentimes we start with body language, your body language tells so much about you, you don't even have to say a word. And then the next thing we worked with was word power, like, for instance, ah, saying, someone makes me sick and they get on my nerve and I can't stand them. They're all, they're ugly words and so we, what we learned to say, we substitute pleasant words for ugly words. In other words a person is difficult. And that takes care of everything. And if you use a positive word, the corners of your lips go upward and it makes you smile. And negative words, the corners of your lips go down, such as stupid and your crazy and you make me sick and you get on my nerves and you're just, you're the ugly one. So they learnt how to be positive and they also learned how great they were and, ah, what a unique human being they were. I used to say to them, you know if there's nine thousand million flowers in this one setting, each one of the flowers, regardless of the color of the flower, the size of the flower, the shape or the ___, they all have something to offer. And it's a funny thing no matter who you are when you purchase a flower or a plant, the first thing you ask is how do I keep this plant and keep it growing beautiful. People need the same concern and that's what Motown artists got.
Interviewer:
Tell me briefly how some of the artists took to these classes, did you understand what you were doing?
Powell:
Well I explained it, I explained it. I, all I said to them is, you are going to appear with the artist development. We're going to do just what I said about the flowers, whatever you need that's what you're going to get. And when you're 35 or 40 and you're appearing in a third or fourth club or a theater, it's going to be you fault because you're going to be trained to appear in number one places around the country. And that's what they did. And, ah.
Interviewer:
Did they all come to the classes?
Powell:
Well they wasn't, well, well they had a choice of their life, you see. This is how I work and this is how Mr. Berry Gordy work. Nobody is forced to do anything. I was only there to enrich their life and help them skip to the bank and if they weren't interested in that, then that was okay, you see. And I also told them, listen, some of the things that I'm going to tell you, I'm sure you heard it from your parents or whatever. But I'm not your mother, you see, I'm your teacher and I'm here to enrich your life and help you skip to the bank. So your best thing for you to do is learn how to listen and follow positive guidelines which is a skill and to be determined and consistent and you're going to go places in life not only whether you sing but you're getting a basic finish background to do anything you want to do in life.
Interviewer:
Give me specific examples of some of the things you taught to certain artists, for example Marvin Gaye, what were some of the things you worked on with him?
Powell:
Well, with the, some of the main things I worked with Marvin Gaye was, in fact Marvin Gaye said to me one day, ah, Miss Powell, he called the finishing school the charm school, Miss Powell I don't think I need the charm school and I don't think I need any training. I said, Marvin, you don't need as much as some of the other artists but you do sing with your eyes close and it gives the illusion that you singing in your sleep and number one places around the country, you have to have your eyes open. You can close your eyes for a certain gesture or whatever but your eyes are the mirrors of your soul so we have to work on that and, and that's what I did. And then I said, and then we could improve on your walk because your leading with your shoulders and your head and you really should stop with lifting your feet and your hip bones should be follow it. So then that makes you taller and really sexy. And, ah, the position of your ears will be straight with your shoulder line. And that's what we did with Marvin Gaye.
Interviewer:
I saw an old film before he started working with you. He had a lot of gutsy movements.
Powell:
Well we worked with, everything had to be done in a classy way so if they were doing the shake or whatever, well we didn't do it in a vulgar way. Because to really dance you, you need your feet and not your hips. It, it really makes a difference. But then later on we had Mr. Atkins, Charlie Atkins come in so he worked more or less with the dance steps see. I just work with the posture and the dealing with the clearness of the mind and knowing who you are and how to handle your body on stage, how to handle yourself on stage and off stage. See because if you think that you're going to, ah, ah, ah, ah, come on stage and be classy or whatever - that's not going to happen, you're a big phony, see. What you have to be, you have to live whatever you do all day long. I always told the artists, every time you're on stage, it's nothing but a dress rehearsal. I never allowed them to say, I knocked them cold last night because if so, you're not going to grow, you aren't going to continue to improve. And then there was, ah, Diana Ross, who, ah, was a hard worker. She was only about a size 5 and when we really were getting ready for a show or project she worked so hard, no one worked as hard as she. And she would come down to about a size 4. But then I remember it was Diana Ross and the Supremes they were sort of singing and, and like - "Baby Love, Baby Love" and make, kind of making, ah, I thought it was making faces. I said, what are you doing? And they said, what are we doing? We're singing. I said, well it looks like you're making faces to me. I said, they, Diana Ross said, well my brother said I had beautiful eyes. I said, well, you do but all you have to do is sing and keep your eyes still, let everybody look at them. And she says, well, I, you say I'm frowning but I'm Souling she says, I'm feeling it. And I said, well, we're going to have to learn how to project without, where you look pleasant. You can't look like you'se, you're angry, you can't open your mouth so wide until you look like you're going to swallow the mike. You, you, we have to work with you because really a singer, all a singer needs is voice and expression anything else you have is an asset to your profession. So that's what we did, we worked on expressing, ah, ah, singing and then expressing yourself, looking pleasant and, and with a smile and maybe a gesture and how to handle a mike, you see, so that the mike don't handle you. I don't want you ever to look forward, lean forward, you do not protrude the buttocks. It's always goes under. You have two hip bones in the front of you, let's feel them, let's find them and you're going to push, you're going to push these hip bones forward like you're pushing them up under your chin. You know they won't go but the more you do this is, gives you correct posture. And this is what they did. And then, how to walk; you life your feet and walk a straight line, one foot in front of the other, point your toes through your shoes and walk and walk, keep the hip bones forward and the position of the ears straight with the, with the, with your shoulder line. The torso of the body should never move, all you need to walk is to lift your feet and let the action carry the body. And that's what we did.
Interviewer:
You also taught people how to get in and out of a ...
Powell:
Out of cars and that's, all that's body language, how to do it gracefully. And I do remember one time I recall that, ah, I wanted to show them how to you, the artists, how to use prop because I know at one time or other there would be production shows which, like Ed Sullivan or whatever I wanted him to be prepared and I said, well, I'm going to bring in three stools and we're going to learn how to sit on the stool and how to, ah, ah, sit on a table or piano or whatever and look graceful and beautiful. And then, not only that, if you're on TV or you're on a show or in a club or wherever, there's people on, in front of you and on the side of you and you have to use stage, you have to learn stage etiquette and stage technique because you can't protrude. The buttocks is not the greatest part of your body so you don't want to protrude it because you're sending the wrong message. And, ah, the girl said, a bar stool, well I don't know why we should learn to sit on a bar stool, we don't go to bars, we don't even drink. I said, for, for your performance you have to learn how to use all types of props and that's what we did. So now Mrs. Esther Gordy Edwards had charge of the management department and she did an excellent job. So about a month later or two months later, they had this, ah, ah, ah, appearance on the Mike Douglas show and there he had three stools and they were elated that they knew how to use the stool because you never allow the buttocks to hang over the stool, you slide down on the base of your spine, you see, so it makes a whole different ball game. And then that too pushes the hip bone forward and you're slanted and, and so you're not leaning forward so that your eyes show. And then you, and that's a practice, see, it's an exercise, you have to practice and practice and practice, it's an exercise so that it becomes a part of you.
Interviewer:
Tell me about when the Supremes played the Copacabana. That must have been very special, you went with them, tell me about that.
Powell:
Well now, at the Copacabana, now at, i-in the studio at um, uh Artists Development, don't forget that we had um, uh, Mar- uh, Harvey Fuquar uh, was our producer. I must bring that in - of Artist Development. And um, Maurice King was the uh, band leader our uh, um, music controller and the uh, musical director. He would go on the road and he also was um, the uh, vocal instructor and arranger and then we had a person by the name of Johnnie Allen, he played the piano and he was the arranger. Then later on Mr. Atkins, Charlie Atkins came. Who uh, worked with the dance steps and he's a very, both of those men were very classy men, so you see we taught class all the way uh, through uh, Artists Development.
Interviewer:
Was there something special you had to teach in order to perform at a place like the Copa?
Powell:
Well they uh, not the Copa, they were taught to perform anywhere. See? At the Foxy, at the uh, Howard Theater or wherever, you don't go and perform, now, that, the-- now there was a, a special show that they put together. Well I had nothing to do with that. That was Berry and um, Maurice King or whoever. You see, so uh, but as far as their performance or behavior or body language, that was something that they learned and they did wherever they went. Wherever. But we worked very hard for the Copa because when we felt that we had the artists' ready for National exposure, the Copacabana was the place that we showcased them, you see. So, naturally I was with them, as the finishing instructor. I taught them night and day. I worked for the company, I represented myself as a finishing instructor and then I represented the company and naturally I represented the artists. So....
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