The Velvelettes: Acclaimed 1960's Motown group got their start at Western Michigan University

Posted at 5:11 PM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 17:45:47-05

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — An acclaimed Motown group who got their start at Western Michigan University's (WMU) campus is reminiscing about their early days.

"It was something. We started recording. We started singing. We went on the road," said The Velvelettes' Lead Singer Cal Street.

Cal Street and Bertha Barbee McNeal are two of the five original members of the acclaimed group.

Bertha said she started playing piano at nine with dreams to become a music composer, so she headed to Western Michigan University for college and met Cal Street's sister, Mildred.

"The Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, they were going to give a talent show. Mildred, me and the girls had heard about it. They were going to give as Cal had mentioned $25 to the winner. Starving students you know? That was a lot of money for us," said The Velvelettes' Co-Founder Bertha Barbee McNeal.

The legendary Motown group "The Velvelettes" got their start at Western Michigan University in the 1960's.

The two recruited Norma Barbee, Bertha's cousin along with Mildred's younger sister Cal and Betty Kelley, Cal's childhood friend. Shortly after, the group was born just in time for the talent show.

That talent show, they ended up winning, and then meeting their ticket to Motown, Berry Gordy's nephew Robert Bullock.

"He says you know, y’all are so good. You sound so good. I want you to audition for my uncle’s record company," said Street.

"What is Motown we said. We don’t know what that is. What is Motown?," said McNeal.

After months of convincing Cal's father to bring them to Detroit, they finally got their shot.

They drove five hours on a two-lane I-94 from Kalamazoo in a snowstorm to audition.

"2648 West Grand Blvd. I will never forget it as long as I live," said Street.

"On the building, it was written Hitsville USA, and I think the A or the S or the U was either broken or fallen down or something. This was our first site of Motown," said McNeal.

The legendary Motown group "The Velvelettes" got their start at Western Michigan University in the 1960's.

The group signed with Motown in late 1962 and started recording in the new year, eventually losing Betty Kelley who joined Martha and the Vandellas.

The Velvelettes reached the billboard charts with "Needle in a Haystack" in 1964, and then in 1967, they decided to devote their time to their families and careers quitting Motown.

"Fate happened to let us be there and be a part of Motown. To this day, especially with it having the impact on music that it has today, I’m just thankful to God that he allowed us to be a part of Motown and to be Motown alums," said Street.

The other two Velvelettes, Mildred and Norma currently live in Flint, MI and couldn't be present for the interview.

The Velvelettes said they occasionally get back together to perform and keep in touch with other Motown family as much as they can.