Encore November 2016

Page 34

ARTS encore

Velvet and Velcro

Friendships have stuck for smooth-voiced ‘sisters’ Emily Townsend


n 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,

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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 BarbeeMcNeal (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.



Top: Clockwise from back left are Velvelettes Caldin Gill-Street, Norma Barbee-Fairhurst, Bertha Barbee-McNeal and Mildred Gill Arbor at their induction into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in August. Bottom: The Velvelettes perform at a WKLZ Saturday Hi-Fi program in 1961.

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