Motown’s Mistress of Polish, Maxine Powell, Dies at 98

Maxine Powell (above left), who was responsible for developing the charm, grace and style of Motown Records’ artists during the Detroit label’s 1960s heyday, died Monday of natural causes at a hospital in Southfield, Mich. She was 98.

Powell didn’t sing or write songs, but those associated with Motown say she was as essential to the label’s operations as any performer or producer.

She directed the label’s Artists Development Department, also known as “Motown’s Finishing School.” Through it, she emphasized to many artists — including Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Jackson Five and the Supremes — how they should carry themselves, treat people and dress.

Motown founder Berry Gordy said the training school was the only one of its kind offered at any record label.

“She brought something to Motown that no other record company had,” Gordy said in a statement Monday. “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.”

Powell’s passing comes less than two months after she was honored at the museum by Robinson and others.

“She was such an important, integral part of what we were doing here at Motown,” Robinson said at the Aug. 26 event held at the famed Hitsville, U.S.A, building.

“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.”

Gordy paid tribute to Powell via videotape during the celebration, joking that he still remembered many of Powell’s sayings, such as “Do not protrude the buttocks,” and “Do not confuse me with your parents — they’re stuck with you. I’m not.”

Born in Texarkana, Texas, Powell was raised in Chicago, where she began her career as an actress. Powell later moved to Detroit. There, she opened the Maxine Powell Finishing School, where she trained African-American models. One of those models was Gordy’s sister, Gwen, who was responsible for bringing Powell to Motown.

Once at Hitsville, she focused on polishing the young artists for their lives in the spotlight.

Some of the training included teaching Marvin Gaye to sing with his eyes open and having others balance books on their heads to improve posture. She also instructed artists on how to properly exit limousines.

Powell said in August that she would “teach until there’s no breath left in my body.”

“I love all the Motown artists,” she said. “This has been a blessing. I thank God for allowing me to be here.”

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