Thursday, 23 April 2015

Velvelettes discover new fans with Spain concert

KALAMAZOO, MI — The Velvelettes, the Motown girl group with Western Michigan University roots, recently performed in Spain for the 2015 Mojo Workin' R& B Festival. 

The four singers spent five days in San Sebastian, Spain in March for the R& B soul weekend. 

"They revere the Motown sound," said singer Cal Street. "Entertainers in Europe are timeless. They don't care what age you are as long as you are well and can still perform. They have a strong respect and appetite for music of the late 50s, 60s and 70s." 

Last year, the group performed at Modstock in London. 

Fellow Velvelette Bertha Barbee-McNeal said, "They'll drive miles just to see you. One young man, a journalist from Barcelona, drove five hours to see the show. People will tell you things like that bring our 45 records from the 60s for you to sign." 

The two-night festival was an all-female extravaganza, Street said. Other performers on the roster included blues singer Mabel John, who coordinated the Raylettes for "Ray," the Ray Charles movie, Maxine Brown, and Dee Dee Sharp of "Mashed Potato" fame. 

"We were on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour with Dee Dee and had not seen her in more than 40 years," McNeal said. 

The Velvelettes, which also include singers Millie Gill-Arbour and Norma Barbee-Fairhurst, sang 14 songs during their hour-long set. 

The Velvelettes were found in 1961, when Barbee-McNeal and Gill-Arbour were students at Western Michigan University. The group scored a series of R&B hits including "Needle in a Haystack," which peaked at No. 45 on the Billboard charts. 

"'Needle in a Haystack' is what keeps us in demand," Street said. "It's the oddest feeling, because we never expected to keep performing today from the time we were teenagers." 

Barbee-McNeal and Street said being part of the Motown brand was a unique experience. In addition to working dress designers to craft their group image and  studying with choreographer Cholly Atkins to create signature Motown moves, the singers were also expected to learn manners from charm school teacher Maxine Powell. 

"She'd call us diamonds in the rough," Street said. "They prepared artists to perform for the most insignificant person to kings and queens." 

Today, Barbee-McNeal and Street live in Kalamazoo, while the other members reside in Flint. They look forward to their next overseas gig. 

"We feel like goodwill ambassadors," Barbee-McNeal said. "the more we travel and get to see all of the different people, the more it makes you realize how small the world is. It adds a bit of humility."

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