The woman who taught Motown how to polish its act
Sarah L. Kaufman is the dance critic of The Washington Post. This article was adapted from her new book, “The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life” (W.W. Norton, Nov. 2, 2015). It is a celebration of all aspects of grace — physical, social and spiritual — and it illuminates the importance of grace in the small moments of everyday living.
A lady with class can sit on a garbage pail and look good. —Maxine Powell
I have long admired Beyoncé for her ability to balance a provocative, sexy stage style with a mostly classy offstage image. She displays a quality that is all too rare to see in pop stars, a gracefulness that has come about because the R&B songstress was raised to treat people well. And by most accounts she does.
Her obsessive work ethic is justifiably famous, she is the utmost professional— never, ever appearing disheveled or out of control — and she stays away from trouble, avoiding tabloid scandals. That would be enough to make her a worthy role model, but in addition she gives an active boost to female empowerment with her all-female band and her songs about strength and self-acceptance.
We’re used to seeing pop-culture stardom result in big egos and big problems. Money and celebrity don’t guarantee an ease with the world. But so many pop stars are just kids when they become famous. How are they supposed to know how to handle their success?
“Grace is the growth of habit,” wrote 18thcentury French moralist Joseph Joubert. “This charming quality requires practice if it
is to become lasting.”
Imagine an institution that teaches young celebs to carry themselves with grace, to be considerate of the public to which they owe their stardom, to govern their bodies and their reputations with care. And to awaken in others a similar respect.
That existed in the early years of Motown.
Indirectly, Beyoncé is a beneficiary of it. Her equanimity is traceable even beyond her childhood. You can follow it back through her early years in Houston and connect the dots a thousand miles away to Detroit, years before Beyoncé was born, when a tiny woman with uncommon grandeur changed the face of pop success.
Beyoncé’s father, Mathew Knowles, looked to Motown in managing his daughter’s career for nearly two decades, starting with the girl group that came to be known as Destiny’s Child. Knowles took as his model Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who made sure the artists signed to his record label were groomed for all facets of celebrity life.
In essence, Beyoncé absorbed the legacy of one of Gordy’s advisers, a woman named Maxine Powell. Powell was petite and toughminded, a former model and actress whose convictions about grace gave her a profound influence on American culture of the 20th century.
For five years in the 1960s, she ran the Motown Artist Development Finishing School, instructing the label’s teenagers in how to sit, stand, walk, dress, talk to fans and reporters, and sidestep the public blunders that can tank a career.
“Finishing school” may seem a quaint notion, but in fact Powell was creating a new reality with age-old conventions of dignity, a well-groomed appearance and personal integrity. At the height of the British Invasion, when the Beatles and other English groups topped the charts, Powell created an indelible look and manner for a new generation of American artists, underscoring the importance of graceful bearing to a charmed public even as she armed her pupils to smash the color barrier with style.
“You are going to be good enough to perform for kings,” she announced to her all-star inaugural class, which included the Su- premes; the Miracles and their lead singer, Smokey Robinson; Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas; and the preteen prodigy Stevie Wonder.
“Don’t forget, these were kids,” Powell told People magazine years later. “They came from the street and the projects. They were rude and crude-acting. They didn’t know how to look you in the eye or shake hands.”
She got a shy Marvin Gaye out of the habit of singing with his eyes closed. Powell firmly believed you should look at people when you’re singing to them. She told him, “You’re so handsome, I want to be sure you use every ounce of your body in walking.” Soon he was channeling his natural reserve into a seductive display of elegant understatement. Gaye’s air of contained ease, his light, gliding carriage with that little bit of a tease — a soft bounce in the knee, suggesting a prowl but never revealing all of himself to us — are as much a part of his persona as his high, sweet voice.
Martha Reeves told me that Powell taught her and the other singers to transcend what can be an obsessively self-focused environment, and to think about others.
“She taught us to keep our head erect and be aware of everything that was going on around us, as a way of respecting others and their personal space,” said Reeves.
Powell corrected the singers’ posture by having them balance books on their heads. They learned to exit a limousine with their knees together. There was to be no raunch, no crotch exhibitionism coming out of Hitsville under her reign.
Her cardinal rules: Don’t “protrude the buttocks.” Never turn your back on the audience. Respect your fans.
Some of the stars chafed at her instruction. “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,” said Smokey Robinson at a ceremony in Powell’s honor shortly before her death in 2013. “Two days a week when you were back in Detroit you had to go to artists’ development. It was mandatory.”
Of course, Powell’s influence also helped sell the music. Gordy wanted to produce records that would interest all people, regardless of race or class. His aim was timeless appeal. Consider Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson of the Supremes: chic young women in evening gowns (chosen by Powell) with a gentle, swaying way of moving and a subtle sensuality.
The outer trappings of grace can only go so far, however. Powell refined Ross’s performance and got her to rethink her ultralong lashes. But she couldn’t ease the ungraceful tension in the singer’s shoulders, which tended to creep up protectively around her chin. That telltale bit of body language betrays the stresses of those glory days. The Supremes may have been the leading girl group of the 1960s, but their swift rise didn’t make for an easy life.
We have to look beyond the gowns and the posture drills for Powell’s deepest influence. Where she elicited true grace was in an entirely different arena: the mind.
“What she taught us was class and self-worth,” wrote Martha Reeves in the London Observer in 2013, in a tribute to her mentor.
Grace under pressure? Hemingway, who coined the phrase, didn’t know the half of it, not like Motown artists did at the height of the civil rights movement. Powell trained them to maintain their dignity in response to everyday abuses.
Wrote Reeves, “We were not protesters, we didn’t go marching or fighting; we had to break down barriers mentally and spiritually. She taught us how to be gracious if we went into a place and they refused to serve us. We would walk out politely and go find another place. . . . And she was right. I survived. A lot of people at that time didn’t know how to overcome and persevere.”
To overcome and persevere: This is a grace that matters. Especially to the Motown artists who had to find a way to move through the indignities of the times without damaging their label, their careers or their spirits.
For some, Powell’s lessons merely expanded upon an existing composure. Smokey Robinson, for instance, was smooth from the start. His smooth, high voice and smooth, relaxed presence made the girls scream; he was Motown’s equivalent of Elvis Presley, making disguised getaways after his shows with a coat thrown over his head so he wouldn’t be mobbed by fans. But his natural grace could also have a deeper effect.
Montgomery, Ala., 1963. Several of Motown’s top groups were performing for a segregated audience in a horse-training arena, as part of the Motortown Revue bus tour of one-night stands. In that Montgomery arena, two flags hung over the stage: American and Confederate.
In front of the flags stood Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Miracles, and 12-yearold “Little” Stevie Wonder, along with a 12-piece band. They had come together for the show’s grand finale, the Miracles’ hit song “Mickey’s Monkey.”
Joining the artists onstage were two men with baseball bats. They stood at the front, one on each side, to make sure the audience didn’t dance.
“If anyone got up to dance they would get hit with those clubs,” Martha Reeves told me.
This was customary in the South at that time, when police often kept white and black audience members separated by a rope that divided the performance halls.
Robinson and the Miracles were the stars of the show. “Mickey’s Monkey” was one of early Motown’s biggest successes. Its driving, hand-clapping beat had helped spread the monkey as a national dance craze. So when the time came for Robinson to launch into the infectiously upbeat closing tune, the tension in the arena was high. Everyone onstage knew the itch to dance was going to be irresistible, and their fans were at risk for a beatdown. They had seen it happen before.
Robinson stepped up to the microphone and decided to try something a little different. He spoke first to the men with the bats.
“He told them, ‘We’re just going to dance and have a good time,’ ” Reeves recalled. “He told them, ‘This music is dance music, and you guys can move away.’ The whole situation was soothed over by Smokey Robinson’s words.
“He’s got this calming, highpitched voice,” Reeves continued. “He didn’t say it in an angry tone, he said it in a loving, man-to-man tone. And then it was like, ‘Okay, man, if that’s what you think,’ and they moved away just as easily as he said it. He had enough authority that they got up and got away.”
When Robinson started singing the familiar chorus, Lumdi
lumdilaiai, the bat-wielding fellows “started dancing, too,” Reeves said. “And what happened was, the people had broke the barrier down. Everyone was hugging and kissing and laughing and celebrating the music.
“It was the first time we could perform in the South that someone didn’t get hit on the head. Smokey stopped that. He stopped it.” He did it with the grace of his voice, his poise, and his friendly appeal to reason. With an understanding heart, imagination and, especially, courage, he transformed what could have been ugly into an uplifting experience. Robinson had the presence of mind and body to bring about a moment of grace.
Grace reversed the current. A spark of electricity traveled outward from his words and bearing, igniting something unexpected — surprise, wonder, respect. Did those assembled hear the quiet backfire, see the swap of power? Much better: They felt it. For one night of grace in the Jim Crow South, a divided people came together and danced.
Beyoncé, pictured performing at the U.N. General Assembly Hall in 2012, absorbed the legacy of Maxine Powell, who for five years in the 1960s ran the Motown Artist Development Finishing School.
Above: Maxine Powell’s convictions about grace gave her a profound influence on American culture of the 20th century.
At right, Powell got a shy Marvin Gaye, shown performing at the Kennedy Center in 1972, out of the habit of singing with his eyes closed. She firmly believed you should look at people when you’re singing to them.
By Sarah Kaufman W. W. Norton & Company. 336 pp. $24.95 THE ART OF GRACE On Moving Well Through Life