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WMU's link to Motown in spotlight for 50th anniversary

Feb. 2, 2009

KALAMAZOO--The celebration of Motown Records' 50th anniversary is sweeping the United States and spreading across Europe, Australia and beyond.

But as events saluting the founding of the famous Detroit record label go global, at Western Michigan University, they are also very local. And the bond between Motown and WMU is strong.

WMU is putting its link to "Hitsville" in the spotlight on Saturday, Feb. 7, during two Gold Company concerts featuring guest appearances by the Motown group the Velvelettes, which was formed at WMU. Original members of the group will sing their two biggest hits, "Needle in a Haystack" and "He Was Really Saying Something" during Gold Company's medley of Motown hits.

Concert information
"Gold Company Celebrates Motown and Beyond"
Saturday, Feb. 7, 2 and 8 p.m.
Miller Auditorium

A week later, Feb. 14, "Meet the Velvelettes" will be the title of an exhibit opening at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. And as 2009 progresses, the Velvelettes and their WMU roots will be showcased in a number of Motown Southwest events that range from movies and discussion groups to a Miller Auditorium performance with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.

The longstanding interest in Motown music has been a welcome surprise, says Caldin "Cal" Street, Velvelettes lead singer and office associate in the WMU Development Office.

"When we started it back in the early '60s, we never thought there would be an interest in it today," Street says. "It's quite flattering. We consider it an honor to still have our music around and still have it revered by the public."

Members of the "girl group" had no inclinations of becoming music legends when two of them, students at WMU, decided to start the group. Somehow, it just worked out that way.

"When we started doing this years ago, we were doing it to have fun," Street says. "The only goal we had was to make a record. We had no thoughts of longevity."

The group began when Bertha Barbee, a WMU junior and music major, and WMU freshman Mildred Gill co-founded the group after meeting in Davis Hall, becoming friends and realizing they shared a passion for singing. At the time, Street, who is Gill's younger sister, was just a ninth-grader at Kalamazoo's Lincoln Junior High School. But she had been singing extensively in their father's church and had a singing group of her own at her school. They asked her to join.

Street quickly suggested that her best friend and singing partner Betty Kelley, a junior at Kalamazoo Central High School, be asked to join. And Barbee recommended her cousin, Norma Barbee, a freshman at Flint Junior College, for membership. The then five-member Velvelettes were on their way.

Street soon emerged as the group's lead singer because she was accustomed to carrying the lead and had a knack for it. They quickly became a hit at fraternity parties and sock hops.

The Velvelettes' first breakthrough came when they entered the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity talent show in 1962 and won first place. Their performance also caught the attention of fellow WMU student Robert Bullock, who happened to be nephew of Motown founder and president Berry Gordy. He kept pestering the girls to go audition for his uncle's record company.

After weeks of badgering, the Gill sisters convinced their parents, the Rev. Willie and Dora Gill, to drive them to Detroit to audition for Motown Records. They journeyed through a snowstorm and arrived in Detroit on a Saturday, not realizing no auditions were held on a Saturday. A series of fortunate meetings saved the day and the group auditioned successfully, singing some of their original songs and a few other top10 hits.

The Velvelettes became known around the Motown studios as "the college girls." They recorded a number of singles for Motown, but "Needle In A Haystack" and "Really Saying Something" were the two to chart nationally and internationally. Other notable hits were on a more regional basis.

Touring was a problem for the group, as they were all still in school, and their parents insisted that education came first. Berry Gordy respected their parents' wishes. They had to bow out of a Motown's first tour of Europe because Street was still in high school.

Still, after considerable coaching in Motown's Artist Development Department, they went on to perform at major auditoriums across the country, from the Apollo Theater in New York to the Regal Theater in the Chicago, the Fox Theater in Detroit, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., the Royal in Baltimore, the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Brooklyn Fox, the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles and all points in between.

The Velvelettes also were invited to join the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour two years in a row, with Street sharing rooms with Diana Ross. The group opened shows for the Temptations, the Crystals, the Drifters, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, James Brown and Jackie Wilson, to name a few. They performed extensively at clubs and theatres, such as the 20 Grand, the Latin Casino and the Roostertail, in the Detroit area and across the U.S. and Canada. Still underage for much of that time, Street would hit the stage, then would be hustled back to her dressing room by the chaperone.

Betty Kelley was later tapped to join Martha and the Vandella's, and the other Velvelettes, one by one, decided to marry and start families, leaving Street to carry on the group and fulfill contractual obligations. Street carried on with two replacements for about three years. Then she, too, got married. Her husband, Richard Street, had served in Motown's quality control department and was lead singer for the Monitors. Later he rejoined the Temptations. The couple lived in the Detroit area, then moved to California with the Motown exodus to the West Coast. At her husband's insistence, Street gave up show business. But the story didn't end there. In 1984, Street moved back to Kalamazoo after her marriage ended, preferring to raise her son in a smaller, quieter town--the town she grew up in. Then she got a call from Bertha Barbee that the Concerned Professional Black Women's Roundtable was holding a large conference in Kalamazoo and was looking for entertainment. They asked Bertha if the Velvelettes could reunite and sing for their musical history workshop.

The group reunited for this event, singing a '60s girl group medley for more than 500 women from across Michigan. They brought down the house.

"When they heard us, they went crazy," Street says with a smile. "They went totally bonkers. They stood up and started screaming, and they knew all the lyrics to our songs. These women and men had a conniption fit."

That led to performances across the state and nation as well as two tours of England in two years. They continue to perform across the United States, Canada and Europe today, having built somewhat of a cult following in England. Street says they are treated like royalty when they go there, and several English fans have come to visit and see them perform at U.S. venues as well.

The Velvelettes still love to perform in Kalamazoo and are looking forward to their Feb. 7 concert with Gold Company.

"We really wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to perform for our fans and a local audience," Street says. "This will be a lot of fun for us."

For the complete story of the Velvelettes as well as photos, scrapbook materials and information about the group's tours and performances over the years, go to velvelettes.com.

Related article
Gold Company salutes Motown

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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