Powell, Maxine 1924–
Maxine Powell 1924–
Finishing instructor, consultant, fashion designer
The individual most responsible for Motown Records’ “Image of Young America,” Maxine Powell brought refinement and sophistication to many of the most gifted popular music artists of the 1960s. A founding member of Motown’s Artist Development department, Powell became the record company’s finishing instructor as well as fashion designer and consultant. Stressing the importance of social etiquette, posture, and stage presence, her personal instruction helped launch the careers of many artists, including Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross. When she officially joined Motown in 1964 Powell brought over a decade of professional experience to Detroit’s burgeoning record label. Always active at the forefront of social change, Powell is a woman of many talents. Her efforts have helped define the social outlook and image of an entire generation.
Powell was born in Texarcana, Texas, on May 30, 1924, to Clarence and Gladys Blair. At six months of age Powell came to Chicago where she was raised by her aunt. Growing up in a middle-class household, Powell spent many hours attending church and learning the rules of proper dress and etiquette. Powell became an intent observer of human nature. She explained in an interview with a Contemporary Black Biography contributor, “When I was young I came to realize how people were all bom and conceived in the same manner; that since all children are helpless and innocent at birth, their differences are determined by their upbringing, not color.” Her belief in the influence of a person’s upbringing on his/her character later impelled Powell to help others by teaching the values of beauty, discipline, and positive self-image.
After joining a dramatic league at age 14, Powell studied under Baron James, a prominent writer, producer, and director. Over the next eight years she performed character parts in stage plays throughout the Midwest. Under the tutelage of Sammy Dyer, Powell also became a professional dancer. Dissatisfied with her stage voice and developing little interest in the art of dance, Powell decided to leave the performing arts in order to study modeling.
Powell’s training at several Chicago charm schools, including the famed John Powers School, provided her with the background needed for a successful modeling career. Under her maiden name Maxine Blair, she became well known in Chicago’s modeling industry. Despite the protestations of her family, Powell studied cosmetology, and in the late 1940s made a living as a manicurist and a make-up artist for a number of leading models.
Born Maxine Blair, May 30, 1924, in Texarcana, Texas; daughter of Clarence and Gladys Blair. Education: Studied drama under Baron James; attended the John Robert Powers School of Modeling, Chicago, IL
Worked as a professional stage actress throughout the Midwest beginning in her teens; became a model in Chicago in the mid 1940s; worked as a manicurist and make-up artist in Detroit, Ml in the late 1940s; Maxine Powell Finishing and Modeling School, Detroit, founder, 1951; Motown Records, Detroit, finishing instructor and consultant, 1964-69; Wayne Community College, Detroit, instructor, 1971-85.
In 1948 Powell came to Detroit for a weekend stay at the Gotham Hotel, one of the finest black-owned establishments in the country. Through an acquaintance at the Gotham, Powell found work as a manicurist within an elite circle of African American Detroiters and stayed in the city. During the late 1940s Powell joined the Zontas Business and Professional Organization, a black civic group dedicated to the desegregation of Detroit’s theaters, ballrooms, and other public venues.
As the organization’s negotiator and director, Powell met with white businessmen and community leaders to, as she explained during an interview with Contemporary Black Biography, “open new doors in places of public rental which had considered off limits to blacks.” By 1951 Powell had opened Ferry Center, a catering and office complex featuring several meeting rooms and a lavish ballroom facility, and had established Detroit’s first black modeling agency.
From 1951 to 1964, many of Powell’s students worked as professional models for such automobile companies as Pon-tiac, Chrysler, Dodge, and Packard. “She was a black women entrepreneur in the 1940s and 1950s, when black men were just getting started,” commented Detroit attorney Myzell Sowell in the Detroit News. “She convinced the auto companies to use black models. Her contributions were tremendous.”
Powell was a friend to Berry Gordy, the up-and-coming impresario of Motown Records, and his sister, Gwen, was one of Powell’s students. Powell first met the Gordys during the early 1950s, when she hired their family printing business to prepare programs for her annual Las Vegas-style fashion show. Since the early 1960s, Berry Gordy had sought Powell’s opinion regarding the young talent signed to his small record label. As Nelson George explained in his book Where
Did Our Love Go?, “It was nothing at first; just a friend helping a friend. But as time went on she found herself caught up in the enthusiasm for Berry’s record company.”
In 1964 Powell closed her business operations to join Motown as a special company consultant. After giving the title Artist Development to Motown’s new finishing school on West Grand Boulevard, Powell set out to instruct the label’s artists, many of whom came from Detroit’s housing projects, on the fine points of stage presence and public speaking. Her students included Martha Reeves, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and the Suprêmes, whose stage clothing she made from department store sale items.
Powell spent two hours a day with each performer, teaching them that they were being trained for two places, “The White House and Buckingham Palace. “But many of the young stars did not share Powell’s sense of deportment. Powell described them as “rude and crude” to the Detroit News. “They were twenty years old, and all they wanted was a hit record. I told them, I’m teaching you skills for life.” In the Detroit Free Press Powell recalled how Marvin Gaye, although always a willing pupil, thought himself above her methods. “I said ‘Marvin, you don’t need as much training as some of them. But you sing with your eyes closed. We have to work on that. And you’re so handsome, I want to be sure you use every ounce of your body in walking.’ Then I showed him how to do it.”
Under Powell’s guidance Motown artists were groomed to play the stages of the Copacabana, Latin Casino, the Ed Sullivan Show, and concert halls throughout England. “I taught positive change through body language and word power,” stressed Powell in an interview for Contemporary Black Biography. “I told these young artists that they were not the best singers and dancers in the world, that our race has always had great performers. My job was to keep them from going on an ego trip—to remind them that each performance was a dress rehearsal.”
Powell taught the Motown performers that each individual was capable of achieving an intrinsic sense of beauty. “She told us we were all God’s flowers,” related Martha Reeves in the Detroit Free Press, adding that Powell inspired them to “let the inner beauty show.” Throughout her career this metaphor has served as Powell’s guiding principle. Since the late 1940s, Powell has taught that humanity’s diversity is similar to a vast bouquet of flowers, that each individual, regardless of size, shape, or color, possesses unique qualities of beauty, truth, and leadership.
Upon her departure from Motown in 1969, Powell brought her expertise to the classroom. In 1971 she began teaching a course in personal development at Wayne Community College; the class featured Powell’s own textbook Development and Professional Development. As a private instructor Powell has taught hundreds of students, including former Miss USA Carol Gist. Since the 1980s Powell has been interviewed in a number of popular publications: People Magazine, Look, and Time. She has also appeared on several television programs in the United States and Canada. One of Powell’s most memorable tributes came in 1975, when Diana Ross introduced her to a Broadway audience as the “lady who taught me everything I know.” There is little doubt that such recognition has been long overdue for a person who has influenced the lives and careers of so many people. Whenever a Motown artist performed on stage, the audience unwittingly paid tribute to the artistry of Maxine Powell.
George, Nelson, Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, St. Martin’s Press, 1985.
Wilson, Mary, Dream Girl: My Life as a Supreme, St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
Detroit Free Press Magazine, January 3, 1993, pp. 14-17.
People, October 13, 1985.
Detroit News, May 20, 1985, pp. 1B, 10B.
Additional information for the profile was obtained through Maxine Powell’s personal business publications and promotional material and through a CBB interview conducted February 16, 1994, in Detroit, MI.