Cofounder Of Motown’s Velvelettes Was 82 – Deadline

Bertha Barbee McNeal, whose Motown group The Velvelettes had hits with“Needle in a Haystack” and “(He Was) Really Saying Something,” died Thursday in hospice in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She was 82 and had colon cancer.

McNeal and The Velvelettes hit “He Was Really Saying Something” was covered by the British group Bananarama, and The Velvelettes were cited by singer Amy Winehouse as a major influence.

“She was an angel. I’ve lost my dearest friend,” said Cal Gill Street, lead singer for The Velvelettes, to the Detroit News. “She was the group historian, and the glue that kept us together.”

In a statement, the Motown Historical Museum lauded McNeal as “a community leader and educator. … Bertha’s passion was to inspire young girls, particularly the next generation of female talent. She was a faithful supporter of the Motown Museum and participated in many museum events including Hitsville Honors in 2019 and the grand opening of Rocket Plaza this past August. Her kind and sweet presence was always a delight and she was loved by the museum staff and alumni alike.”

McNeal last performed with The Velvelettes at Arcadia Creek in downtown Kalamazoo in July.

McNeal and her friends formed a singing group at Western Michigan University. The group was talented – they beat the Supremes several times at Berry Gordy’s “Battle of the Stars” at the Graystone Ballroom,

Bertha Barbee grew up in Flint, Michigan and was part of a family singing group, The Barbees, with her cousin Norma. In 1957, The Barbees went to Detroit to record a single, “Que Pasa” (backed with “The Wind”), produced by Mickey Stevenson.

When they heard of a singing competition that paid its winners $25, Bertha and friends united. They won the contest, and caught the attention of a fellow WMU student, Robert Bullock, who happened to be Esther Gordy Edward’s son (and Berry Gordy’s nephew, and Motown Museum CEO Robin Terry’s father).

Bullock suggested that the girls audition for his uncle in Detroit. They arrived at the studio, but were told there were no Saturday auditions. As fate would have it, Mickey Stevenson happened to stop by the office, recognized McNeal and Barbee from the ’57 recording session, and everything changed.

Stevenson, then chief of A&R for Motown, signed them and cowrote “Needle in a Haystack,” with producer Norman Whitfield. The single peaked at number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. The group had also recorded “There He Goes” and “That’s the Reason Why” with Stevie Wonder in 1963.

The follow-up single, also produced by Whitfield, was “He Was Really Saying Something.”

But the group, as college graduates, had other paths to follow, and soon split. They reunited in 1984 at McNeal’s request. They took part in many Motown historical events after that.

McNeal is survived by a son, Marty McNeal, and a daughter Melva Payton, as well as a granddaughter, Cydni Payton, and grandson, Spencer Payton.

Funeral arrangements are still incomplete.

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