An all-girl pop group joined together for a small singing competition at Western Michigan University in 1961 and ended up being signed to a Motown contract. Today that group is the only Motown band still performing with its original members.
On Aug. 21, the Kalamazoo-based Velvelettes were inducted into the newly formed Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, in Dearborn, along with Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, Fats Domino and Jimi Hendrix.
The band has enjoyed a recent wave of lifetime achievement awards, but Bertha Barbee-McNeal, longtime Kalamazoo resident and one of the foursome’s vocalists, believes this R&B Hall of Fame honor is something out of the ordinary.
“Our kids think of us as just mom, so, for my daughter to get excited about this award, that’s really something,” she says. “They’ve seen us perform so many times, but this time it dawns on them …”
“… that we might be living legends,” bandmate Caldin Gill-Street chimes in. These old friends — sisters, as they say — often finish each other’s sentences, fact-checking one another on stories about Marvin Gaye or what dress band members were wearing on a certain night.
The group was founded in 1961 by Barbee-McNeal (then Bertha Barbee) and Mildred Gill (now Mildred Gill Arbor), students at WMU. Initially it had five members.
Mildred recruited her younger sister Carolyn Gill (also known as Cal or Caldin), who was among the first black ninth-graders attending a newly integrated Loy Norrix High School, and her sister’s friend Betty Kelley, a junior in high school.
Bertha recruited her cousin Norma Barbee (now Barbee-Fairhurst), a freshman at Flint Junior College.
Gill-Street was chosen as the group’s lead singer.
Kelley officially left the group to join Martha and the Vandellas in 1964, after she sang on that band’s hit “Dancing in the Street.”
The Velvelettes had success with hits like “Needle in a Haystack” and “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’,” both in 1964, but they had a shorter stint in the limelight than contemporaries such as The Supremes, Mary Wells and Gladys Knight & the Pips — a result of the cruel fate of the pop charts and the fact that by 1971 all of the members had left the band to start families.
However, traces of the Velvelettes are all around Kalamazoo, from local artist James C. Palmore’s photorealistic mural of the band members (depicting them with painted diamonds and the signature baby’s breath they all wore in their hair) outside the offices of the Black Arts & Cultural Center in the Epic Center to a binder full of news clippings in Barbee-McNeal’s basement to the memories of Barbee-McNeal’s music students at Milwood Middle School, where she taught for more than four decades.
Occasionally she would tell them stories about recording with a then-12-year-old Stevie Wonder, performing at sock hops (also known as record hops) around Detroit, or about the treacherous weather the band encountered while touring the country with the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars or about commuting weekends between WMU and Hitsville U.S.A. (the nickname for Motown’s first headquarters, on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit).
The young women, who were told they had “voices like velvet,” kept their feet planted in separate worlds — among the up-and-coming celebrities who would change American pop music forever and in the routines, schoolwork, jobs and families of normal life.
“Mary Wells, when she performed with us, she made a comment that made us feel good, commending us for getting our education. Many of the folks at Motown did not go on (to higher degrees) after high school. Mary called us ‘the college kids.’ We always were either in school or had a full-time job or raising children,” says Gill Arbor, who raised her three kids as a single mother, worked full time, and went to school part time to earn a nursing degree. She has worked as a registered nurse since.
Even when the four thought their days as a band were over, they talked to each other every week, according to Barbee-McNeal. Then they surprised everyone, including themselves, by reigniting the band in 1984 at the Concerned Black Women’s Conference in Kalamazoo. Since then, the group has traveled through Michigan and to Europe and the East and West coasts on weekends and during vacation to perform the old classics.
All four original members are in their 70s, and with this longevity comes nostalgia and grief about fellow musicians who have died. “It’s heartbreaking,” says Gill-Street. “I would sometimes see those (TV) specials where they would sell six or seven CDs in a collection from a certain era. One time there was one from Motown, and so many of the artists are deceased now. It really made my heart feel heavy. I was sitting there with my glass of wine bawling my eyes out.”
This is the fourth year of inductions for the R&B Hall of Fame, the brainchild of Lamont Robinson, a former Harlem Globetrotter. For Robinson, the annual induction ceremonies have been a way to build excitement for his real goal: a permanent R&B Hall of Fame building in Detroit that would house 30,000 square feet of interactive exhibits and his collection of vintage memorabilia, which has been appraised at more than $1 million.
Part of Motown history is that Gill-Street was married briefly to Richard Street of The Temptations, and they had one son, Richard Jr. Both met with professional success on the pop charts, and Gill-Street also experienced success working at the Ford Motor Co. The couple moved to Bel Aire, California, where they would casually bump into the talented and famous at the grocery store and bank.
Gill-Street recalls that time with affection, but she ultimately left the marriage, returning to Michigan and moving closer to her Velvelette sisters. That return home, she says, brought her more happiness.
All four of the Velvelettes are single now. Single life as mothers and grandmothers suits them, as they each find support in one another. “When anything happens, we support each other,” says Barbee-McNeal. “Cal sang at my mother’s funeral. Two of the ladies had surgery, and we supported each other through that. We’re family. That’s what we are.”
With grown children and fewer responsibilities, the Velvelettes have recently been able to perform in more exotic locales. They perform a semi-annual show in London and in San Sebastian, Spain, and they will help promote the upcoming Motown the Musical show at Miller Auditorium in May.
To read more about the Velvelettes, check out a digitized version of the story “Kalamazoo’s Velvelettes,” from the October 2000 edition of Encore, at encorekalamazoo.com.