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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Maxine Powell (1915-2013)

Maxine Powell was born in Texarkana, Texas, but her parents, Clarence and Gladys Blair, sent her to Chicago to live with her aunt when she was six months of age. She graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1933 and then attended the famed Madame C. J. Walker's School of Beauty Culture.

She studied acting, elocution and dance, paying for her lessons by working as a manicurist. In the early 1940s, she worked as a model and was a member of the first African American group to perform at the Chicago Theatre. At the same time, Powell taught etiquette, worked as a maid to wealthy clientele and held fashion shows.

After reading about the nine-story, 200-room Gotham Hotel in Detroit, she went there for a visit and relocated to the city soon after. In 1951 she opened the Maxine Powell Finishing and Modeling School. Two years later, she bought and remodeled a house that became the largest banquet facility for African Americans in Detroit. She also had her own talent agency and was the first to place black models in mainstream print ads.

In 1964 Berry Gordy's sister, Gwen Gordy Fuqua, was one of her top models. She persuaded her brother to establish a Powell finishing school for Motown talent. She was director of Motown's Artist Development Department for many years, and every Motown artist was required to attend classes. Powell taught Motown artists all the social graces, including etiquette, dress, speech, posture and general comportment.

According to Smokey Robinson, "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," he said. "Two days a week when you were back in Detroit you had to go to artists' development. It was mandatory." Her personal instruction helped Robinson's career, as well as that of Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations and others.

She wanted Motown performers not only to be poised on stage and with the press, but also to feel confident enough to visit the White House or Buckingham Palace. She reportedly reminded Motown's female stars, "Ladies, remember your gloves, walk with class like you were taught — and always remember, do not protrude the buttocks."

From 1971 to 1985, Powell taught personal development at Wayne County Community College. After 1985, she worked as a consultant.

From thehistorymakers.com, msn.com and detroitnews.com


Maxine Powell
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9 comments:

  1. What a pretty lady Maxine was. I like that last photo of her.
    Dressed to the 9's.

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    1. I watched a couple of taped interviews with her, and she was as smart and funny as she was lovely. She was such an accomplished women for her time.

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  2. She was a real gem, and I think she was one of the driving forces behind success of Motown artists. The Detroit Free Press also ran a lovely remembrance about her this week. We should all have such class!

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    1. Absolutely. In a time when women were expected to be homemakers, she had as much business savvy as any of her male contemporaries. I'm amazed at how much drive she had to be successful and how much work she was willing to do to achieve it. Manicurist, actress, model, talent agent, charm school and banquet facility owner...most people would be proud to do just one of those things well, but she did them all. From what I've read, even though the Motown artists may have groaned sometimes about having to go to class, they all acknowledge what she did for them and had great respect and affection for her.

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    1. Actually, my inspiration was the History of Rock course I'm taking online through Coursera and the University of Rochester. I had never heard of Powell till a couple of weeks ago. Had it not been for that class, I probably wouldn't have noticed the news of her death.

      I was a teenager in the 60s, and she played a big behind-the-scenes role in the music my friends and I listened to. I remember thinking back then how elegant and poised the Diana Ross and the Supremes were, and now I know that Maxine Powell was behind that image.

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  4. What a lovely woman!! I adore that last picture too, so incredibly elegant!!

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    1. Her gloves remind me so much of growing up in those years. As young girls, we always wore cotton or nylon gloves to church, but when our mothers thought we were old enough...usually when we were in high school...we moved up to elegant kid gloves which we wore with our wool suits and heels. Our mothers dressed for church (and other social events) very much like Powell in that photo...always with hats. Interestingly, we wore hats to church as little girls but didn't during junior high school or high school.

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