DETROIT – Maxine Powell, the finishing school instructor who infused Motown’s young stars with elegance and poise, died Monday morning at Providence Hospital in Southfield, Mich. She was 98.
Powell was “peacefully surrounded by Motown family and close friends,” according to a Motown Museum spokeswoman.
Her cause of death was not disclosed, but close friend Beverly Bantom said Powell had been in steadily declining health since a fall on May 31. Powell slipped into a coma Saturday at the hospital.
Powell had been enlisted by Motown Records in 1964 to help mold singers such as Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye into performers fit “for kings and queens,” as Powell often put it. She called them her diamonds in the rough, and her training – along with tough love – aimed to polish their posture, diction, stage presence, and sense of self-worth.
Motown artists and other personnel heralded her on Monday as one of the label’s key behind-the-scenes figures, an unsung hero whose contributions came to be publicly recognized only in later decades.
As part of Motown’s Artist Personal Development Department, Powell was a vessel for Gordy’s broader Motown vision: an entertainment legacy that crossed cultural borders.
“She brought something to Motown that no other record company had,” Gordy said Monday in a statement. “She was a star in her own right – an original.”
“I teach class, style and refinement,” was her familiar mantra, and those qualities were obvious in Powell herself: Primly attired and delicately mannered, she radiated a natural dignity and grace that often struck those who encountered her.
But it wasn’t all formality with Powell, a Texas native who grew up in Chicago. There was also a twinkle in her eye that revealed a spirited soul underneath. Former Supreme Mary Wilson on Monday described her mentor and longtime friend as “an extremely earthy black woman.”
“She enjoyed life,” Wilson said. “She loved being out there.”
Powell played the role of tutor well into her later years, quick to dole out instruction even to strangers. A slouching teen at a restaurant risked a snap judgment from the elderly Powell, recalled Wilson: “Young men don’t sit like that!”
“She had that magical, angelic instinct for understanding what someone was made of,” said Allen Rawls, the Motown Museum’s interim CEO. “She knew if she could get through to them in some way, she could help them improve themselves.”
Powell had closed her own Detroit finishing school to take up the Motown job, and she continued that work after the label’s departure in the early 1970s, including a stint with Wayne County Community College.
Powell was honored during an August reception at the Motown Museum, her legacy celebrated by the likes of Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy and Martha Reeves. She appeared frail but delighted by the array of well-wishers — a tribute that Powell had long hoped for, according to close friends such as Reeves.
“She taught us all — men and women — etiquette, class and what you are supposed to do,” recalled the Four Tops’ Duke Fakir on Monday. “That’s artist development. I will truly miss her.”
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Wilson chuckled as she recounted Powell’s commands to the Supremes ahead of a national TV appearance: Dance not with your buttocks, she told the group, but with your knees — “you’re not out on the streets here.”
But Powell imparted something far beyond etiquette drills, Wilson said.
“She gave us more than just the tools for the movements and the gowns,” she said. “These were tools for us as human beings.”
And they were lessons that became ingrained for life. As Powell lay in a coma over the weekend, Wilson spoke into her ear by telephone.
“I thanked her so much for making me the person I am today, for helping me understand the grace that was given to me,” Wilson said. “I told her, ‘Everywhere I go, you’re with me.’ ”
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