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Category: Art and Entertainment, Race/Ethnicity

Ain’t No Women (Like the Motown Women)

| May 12, 2009

There’s a lot to celebrate about 50 years of Motown music—including the careers of two women whose behind-the-scenes efforts helped create a new genre of music.

From a theme show on American Idol to the West Grand Boulevard house in Detroit where it all began, the yearlong celebrations of Motown’s 50th anniversary have hit a rhythm. Television specials, a podcast series of interviews with music legends, panel discussions, and photo essays honoring the label’s civil rights impact are among the ways the media is singing love tunes to the Motown pioneers.

But something’s missing.

During the last five decades, an embarrassing disparity in the number of female professionals working offstage has characterized the music industry. Motown’s 50th anniversary offers an opportunity to give due credit to two extraordinary behind-the-scenes women. For the countless stories about how Berry Gordy began Motown with an $800 loan from his family, there are radically few mentions of Maxine Powell and Esther Gordy Edwards, two women who contributed substantially to the creation and success of the Motown Sound.

Powell directed the finishing school for Motown talent to prepare performers for immense popularity—key for a label featuring young Detroiters, often with little exposure to life outside of their neighborhoods. Powell taught everyone from the Jackson 5 to The Supremes how to greet heads of state, interact with their fans, and adapt to audiences whatever their size. She taught Marvin Gaye how to sing with his eyes open and to stand up straight. She taught Diana Ross to fuse ambition with graciousness. Even Barry Gordy took her course—becoming what Powell calls one of her best examples of someone who learned “to carry himself with class.”

“Motown artists weren’t disrespectful, but they were diamonds in the rough,” Powell said. “I told them they trained for the number-one places around the world, for the Queen of England and president of the United States, and those youngsters laughed at me. They said all they wanted was a hit record. They didn’t have the vision—yet.”

Powell’s strict regime—all artists worked with her for two hours a day for four years—led Motown talent to the most prestigious and popular stages of the world.

Meanwhile, Esther Gordy Edwards—Berry’s sister—directed the Artists Personal Management Division of Motown, developing the style of acts like The Temptations and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Gordy Edwards also managed Motown’s overseas activities, bringing the Detroit sound to a global market. And she knew the history she was part of; Gordy Edwards preserved memorabilia along the way and founded the Motown Historical Museum in 1985 in the original “Hitsville USA” house in Detroit. It’s now one the city’s most popular tourist destinations.

Together, the pair’s impact on Motown’s success is undeniable. Powell, however, remembers it not being an easy road.

“Women didn’t get credit for anything, [whether they were] black or white,” she said. “They were taught to support their husbands, run carpools, and host charitable events.”

As Motown celebrates 50 years, full credit to the talented women whose craft lay offstage is still forthcoming.

Also overdue is advancement for women as music professionals in an industry that relies on their talents as performers. Leaders like Julie Greenwald, president of Atlantic Records, and Christina Norman, president of MTV, are far too few.

Recognizing that an uneven gender dynamic has persisted in music studios for more decades than anyone cares to count, women have taken the initiative to create a new future.

Through Women in Music, hundreds of industry professionals support each other and cultivate new female talent via workshops, panels, networking events and mentoring. And the International Alliance for Women in Music is a global network headed by Hsiao-Lan Wang, a Taiwanese orchestral and electronic media composer.  With publications, conferences, advocacy, and of course concerts, IAWM works toward a musical culture devoid of gender barriers.

This crucial advocacy of contemporary female music professionals must be paired with an arts media that, as it fashions legacies, gives credit where it is due. Neglecting the accomplishments of Motown’s Maxine Powell and Esther Gordy Barry only feeds into a false perception that women have no significant place as industry professionals.

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