Taking Motown to the Schools

By: Thom Cooper

Music is timeless and crosses all ages. Never is that more true than with the music of Motown. This spring, Miller was able to bring a deeper level of appreciation of Motown to the three Kalamazoo Public Schools high schools.

With the help of Motown legends Bertha McNeal and Cal Street of The Velvelettes, we were able to work with choir directors, Theresa Williams-Johnson of Kalamazoo Central, Julie Pelligrino of Loy Norrix and Phoenix High, to educate a group of approximately 50 high school students on the history of the Motor City’s famous music powerhouse. I had the chance to follow along on the once-in-a-lifetime experience that started in the classroom, but took to the road.

Ms. McNeal and Ms. Street went to the high schools and conducted mini history lessons on how The Velvelettes were formed right here on the campus of Western Michigan University for a student talent show. They also gave background on the group and where they’ve been and how they still perform today with the original lineup. The ladies provided each group with a behind the scenes look at what it was like to be a part of the Motown Cavalcade.

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Students learned about the etiquette and finishing school classes that all stars were required to attend, under the tutelage of Miss Maxine Powell. In fact, Motown was the only in-house finishing school at any American record label. The artists were taught how to sit, stand, walk and talk. They may have come to Hitsville U.S.A. as voices in the rough, but they went out on stage polished to meet kings and queens.

One of the activities the students enjoyed was learning a Motown hit and choreographing a number themselves. Each school had one group of young ladies do a number of The Velvelettes or The Supremes and one group of gentlemen do a Temptations piece. Watching the groups perform was very entertaining.

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As part of the educational journey, the groups went to the Motown Museum in Detroit to see where it all started. We toured the house that Berry Gordy bought with an $800 loan from his family and recorded some of the most famous songs in the world. We saw the second-story area where Berry and his family lived, the attic where they ran mixes to create the reverb that is so much a part of the Motown Sound and the first floor office area that was where it all happened.

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Finally, we were able to attend opening night of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL at Miller Auditorium. We were able to see and hear the story, as told by Berry Gordy himself. After the show, we participated in a Q & A with ten cast members. They were kind enough to stay, chat and even take photos with us. What more can I say? For the past month, we have had a great time immersing ourselves in everything Motown. Hopefully, you got a chance to come see MOTOWN THE MUSICAL at Miller and were dancing in your seat!

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