KALAMAZOO, Mich.—It all started with the keys.
"Music is my life. It still is and it was when I was a kid," says Bertha Barbee-McNeal, co-founder of legendary Motown group The Velvelettes. At 9 years old, she remembers, "I would sit on my curb (in Flint, Michigan), and I would listen to this gal play the piano. My parents let me take lessons, and I would walk four of five blocks every day … I don't think I missed a lesson until I was 22."
That passion for piano is what led Barbee-McNeal to Kalamazoo in the early 1960s. She was already an accomplished classical pianist when an organist from her father's church recommended she pursue a music degree at his alma mater—Western Michigan University.
Outside of her studies, she couldn't get away from music. She'd go to the student center and hang out at the baby grand piano, and friends would gather around and sing.
"Every time I see a piano, I want to play it," she says.
Eventually she and her friends decided to start a group, singing at campus parties and sock hops. It was a fun way to pass the time, but when they caught wind of a talent show at Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity with a $25 prize, Barbee-McNeal and her friend Mildred Gill started to change their tune.
"That was like a million dollars to us!" laughs Barbee-McNeal. She and Gill decided to get serious, disbanding the original group and handpicking singers they knew could help them win the prize. Gill brought in her sister, Cal (Gill) Street, and her best friend Betty Kelley—both still in high school. Barbee-McNeal called up her cousin Norma (Barbee) Fairhurst, who was attending a junior college back home in Flint. "We would practice at the Maybee Music Hall (on campus), where I used to practice my classical music."
Every successful group needs a name. Street was studying French at the time and suggested Les Jolies Femmes—French for The Pretty Women. The glamorous moniker, paired with a strict rehearsal regimen, led to success.
"We practiced and practiced, and by Jove, when it came time for that talent show … we won that $25!"
The ladies' newfound fame on campus unearthed a challenge; their exotic name was difficult for fans to pronounce. They set out to change it, and a new identity came naturally.
"We were on campus, and we were in a car harmonizing," remembers Barbee-McNeal. "Somebody in the car said, 'You girls sound smooth; your harmony is smooth like velvet.' And somebody quickly said, 'Velvet, how about Velvelettes?' So we always tell everybody our name was born in the backseat of a car."
making it big
In addition to the lavish $25 purse at the fraternity talent show—which Barbee-McNeal guesses the ladies spent on hamburgers and malts at the student center and some jewelry—the ladies also won the attention of classmate Robert Bullock, nephew of Motown producer Berry Gordy.
"He said, 'I have an uncle who has a recording studio called Hitsville USA. Why don't you come and audition?'" Barbee-McNeal says. The group almost brushed off the offer. "We really weren't interested. We were so into our school work and that kind of thing."
But Street's parents urged them to reconsider.
"They said, 'What do you have to lose? You might as well go and audition.'"
Persuaded to give it a try, they piled into a car with Street's brother and father—a Baptist preacher—and headed to Detroit. It was a Saturday in the middle of a snowstorm, and Barbee-McNeal remembers it took more four hours to get there.
"When we finally got there, we couldn't find Hitsville. We were asking everybody where it was," she says. Eventually they pulled up in front of the famous studio and nervously walked inside for their audition where they met a young receptionist with some bad news: Hitsville didn't do auditions on Saturdays.
"It really hurt our feelings. We said, 'But we came in a snowstorm, could you please make an exception?'" But her answer remained a vehement no—even after Street's father pleaded with her. "We had tears in our eyes and thought it wasn't meant to be. We were on our way out the door and at that moment the studio door opens and out walks none other than Mickey Stevenson."
Stevenson, head of Motown's Artists and Repertoire Department, recognized Barbee-McNeal and Fairhurst right away. When they were younger, they sang backup for their uncle in a group called The Barbees. Stevenson produced their first record.
"He said, 'Bertha, Norma, what are you doing here?' We said, 'We came to audition,'" says Barbee-McNeal. Stevenson told the receptionist to let the group in for their audition with Gordy. "That's how we got our foot in the door. You could say we were in the right place at the right time."
"He said, 'They're okay, come on with me,'" says Street, remembering they walked past the receptionist with a newfound confidence. "We went through the control room door back into the studio area, the famous Studio A where all of the wonderful, magical, timeless sound of Motown was made, and as we walked up the stairs to a rehearsal room and we'd pass a doorway and there was Smokey Robinson, another room was Marvin Gaye, another room was The Temptations. We felt like we had died and gone to heaven!"
The next year was a whirlwind for the young group from Kalamazoo. Barbee-McNeal and the ladies continued going to school and drove to Detroit on the weekends to cut records.
"I'd take the Greyhound or train some weekends until the end of my junior year at Loy Norrix High School," says Street, who moved in with her aunt and uncle in Detroit for her senior year to make things easier. By then, The Velvelettes were regulars on the tour circuit and on TV. "After a while people start recognizing you. So, the first day I walked into class at Chadsey High School, everybody sat straight up in their seats and started pointing at me, saying 'That's her! She's the lead singer! That's a Velvelette!' They just went crazy."
The newfound celebrity was both exciting and challenging—each member of the Velvelettes either went to school or had a "day job" throughout their careers in Motown.
"It was a sacrifice, but if you really want to do something, that's what you do," Barbee-McNeal says, estimating the group produced about 20 songs that first year while also learning choreography for their performances. "Sometimes we would start practicing at noon and practice all day long to get the steps."
The Velvelettes recorded their first two singles in 1963, "There He Goes" and "That's the Reason Why," with a young Stevie Wonder playing harmonica. The following year they broke into the Billboard Hot 100 with "Needle in a Haystack" and "He was Really Sayin' Somethin'," which earned them a spot on Dick Clark's "Caravan of Stars" tour. They traveled from across the country for a month with the biggest artists of the day—Diana Ross was Street's roommate.
"We had fun. She treated me like a little sister," Street remembers.
When The Velvelettes sang at the Apollo Theatre, they knew they'd made it big.
"I mean we were almost kissing the walls because of the famous people that came before us that sang at the Apollo. Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, people like that."
The Velvelettes earned their place on the stage, gaining a reputation as the "Ladies of Motown."
"We didn't think about making history; it was just having fun," says Barbee-McNeal. She remembers Gordy throwing parties for all of his artists and encouraging friendly competition with Motown battles. The Velvelettes beat The Supremes in their faceoff—Barbee-McNeal has the poster on her dining room wall to commemorate the win. "That was something we'll never forget."
Motown was more of a family than a bunch of professional rivals. "The camaraderie between the groups was phenomenal," she says.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
As fun as the ride was, The Velvelettes decided to dissolve the group In the late '60s.
"Three of us quit at that time to have our families," says Barbee-McNeal. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in music from Western and became a music teacher in Kalamazoo Public Schools, where she taught for 26 years. Sometimes she would invite Street, who also lived in Kalamazoo, to sing with her choirs.
"They were just thrilled about (having a teacher from Motown) because they would say, 'Mrs. McNeal knows what she's talking about because she's been there and done that,'" she laughs.
After studying business at the Detroit Institute of Commerce and working for Ford Motor Company and Upjohn, Street returned to her Western roots and worked as an administrative assistant on campus.
The Velvelettes may have taken time off to pursue other careers, but Motown was still in their blood. In 1984, they reunited for a show at a conference in Kalamazoo. They were so well received that they launched a second chapter of their careers, touring the world. They've visited places like Paris, Montreal and London—places, Barbee-McNeal says, they'd only dreamed about when they were younger. Through it all, they've never forgotten their roots.
"Western is a big part of The Velvelettes' heart. We always tell people we were born there on Western's campus." They've been back to campus several times, singing at Homecoming and other events as well joining concerts with Gold Company, the University's renowned jazz group.
"For the … kids that were in the Gold Company to come up and talk to us and say, 'You've been an inspiration to us,' I mean, that just makes you feel good," Barbee-McNeal says. "I wish I could put into words the feelings you get when people come up and tell you how much they enjoy what you do. It's a good feeling."
Barbee-McNeal received the Western College of Education and Human Development Alumni Society Golden Apple Award in 2004—one of the many awards that decorates her dining room today—for her outstanding teaching skills and her career with The Velvelettes.
The group and their classic Motown sound paved the way for countless singers after them. Amy Winehouse once said she used their music as inspiration while writing her "Back to Black" album, and The Velvelettes worked with Danish pop duo Junior Senior on a track as well.
"We're still trying to do it. We'll retire when we can't do it, or can't walk, or whatever," laughs Barbee-McNeal. In fact, she'd love to see the group's Motown roots come full circle and team up with a current artist—she says maybe she'll reach out to Lizzo.
"Old and new, you know what I mean? History!" she says. "All she can do is say no."
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