The woman who taught Mo­town how to pol­ish its act

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - sarah.kauf­man@wash­ On Nov. 3, join PostPOV for a con­ver­sa­tion with Sarah Kauf­man about mod­ern grace, and find­ing it in un­ex­pected ways and places. Kather­ine Bradley of the Ci­tyBridge Foundation; Dana Tai Soon Burgess of the Dana Tai Soon Burgess D

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.

Sarah Kauf­man


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

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