The Velvelettes were co-founded in 1963 by Bertha Barbee-McNeal and Mildred Gill Arbor, at Western Michigan University, where they were both students. Norma Barbee-Fairhurst (Bertha’s cousin), Caldin Gill Street (aka Carol), Mildred’s younger sister, and Betty Kelley (Cal’s best friend), were asked to join the group. The Velvelettes formed at WMU and performed regularly around WMU’s campus at various dances. After much preparation and rehearsing at Maybee Hall, they entered the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity talent show on campus, and they won first prize!
Berry Gordy’s nephew, Robert Bullock, was also a student at WMU at the time of their performance and first place win in the talent show. Upon seeing the show, he immediately saw merit and he encouraged them to audition for his Uncle’s company, Motown Records, in Detroit. Shortly thereafter, and after some serious persuasion, Millie’s and Cal’s parents, Rev. and Mrs. Gill, agreed the group should go to Detroit to audition for Motown Records. Rev. Gill, along with Cal and Millie’s brother, Charles, drove the group to Detroit in a snow storm. A normal 2 hour drive took almost 5 hours in the middle of winter. They successfully auditioned at Motown Records, and were eventually signed to the infamous record label, thus beginning their professional singing career. Motown’s Mrs. Esther Gordy-Edwards had very often referred to the Velvelettes as Motown’s “college girls.”
The Velvelettes recorded numerous hits at Motown’s Hitsville USA, Studio A, located at 2648 W. Grand Boulevard in Detroit, MI. That’s “where it all began!” Their recording career with Motown Records spanned almost a decade (1963-1971). The group’s most notable hits of the early 60s, ‘Needle In A Haystack’, and ‘He Was Really Sayin’ Something’, went to the Top 40 in Cash Box and Billboard international record magazines. These two songs also went on to be Number 1 in several cities and towns across America. The Velvelettes were featured on Motown tours, they worked the “chitlin circuit” (theaters mainly on the east coast) they were also featured on two Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tours in the mid 60s.
After about a year with the Velvelettes, Betty Kelley left the group to join Martha & The Vandellas, at the request of Berry Gordy and Martha Reeves. Betty was asked to fill a vacancy for one of the original Vandellas. Her first gig with the Vandellas was a European Motown Revue tour. The remaining Velvelettes kept performing, and started traveling out of the Detroit area after Cal finished high school. They performed throughout the U.S. and Canada in the mid 60s and early 70s. In the late 60s they took a well deserved break and left the business to marry and start their families.
In 1985 the original members reunited to do a show for an organization Bertha was involved with, the Concerned Black Women’s Roundtable Conference of Southwest Michigan. Since their performance for this event they have been performing together ever since! The Velvelettes have managed to juggle corporate jobs and their professional singing careers for many years, and they continue to answer to the many calls to perform throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. In February 2009, a Velvelettes exhibit was created at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, located in downtown Kalamazoo. The exhibit showcases the group’s career and takes you on a nostalgic journey with pictures, uniforms, music and various awards. A must see, indeed!
The Velvelettes are revered in Europe, particularly England, where they still maintain a cult like following to this day! The late Amy Winehouse amongst other luminaries was a huge fan and Bananarama had a top 5 hit in the UK with a cover of ‘Really Saying Something’ The group’s hits, ranked them among other notable “60s girl groups” that were honored at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH in 2000! Today, these legendary ladies of Motown still reside in Michigan. The year, 2009, marked Motown’s 50th Anniversary! In November ‘09, the Velvelettes, along with other Motown artists, came together in Detroit to celebrate the magical, timeless sound of Motown.
This group is a true sisterhood and they are often told by fans that they are still “really sayin’ something!”
The Velvelettes next performance is at the Tamla Motown Revue at MODSTOCK (50 years of Mod) on Friday 18 April 2014 @ www.229thevenue.co.uk
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