Bertha Barbee-McNeal, a co-founder of Motown hitmakers the Velvelettes, died on December 15 in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the age of 82. She had been receiving care in a hospice for colon cancer.
Earlier this month, McNeal and bandmate Cal (aka Carolyn or Caldin) Gill Street were honored by the Kalamazoo Arts Council with Community Medal of Arts awards, which Street accepted for both of them. The pair had known each other since 1961, the year of the group’s formation. “She was an angel. I’ve lost my dearest friend,” Street told the Detroit News. “She was the group historian, and the glue that kept us together.”
The Velvelettes came together when Bertha was 21 and Cal was a 14-year-old in ninth grade. They formed the group at Western Michigan University with Cal’s sister, Mildred Gill, Bertha’s cousin, Norma Barbee, and Cal’s friend Betty Kelley. They signed to Motown in late 1962 after being brought to the company by by Robert “Bob” Bullock, Berry Gordy’s nephew and son of the Motown founder’s sister, Ester Gordy Edwards,
In 1963, the group released the non-charting “There He Goes” before making a mark with “Needle in a Haystack” and “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’,” Both became trademarks for the group, who were also especially noted for 1966’s “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You.” The Velvelettes continued recording until 1967, but earned their solitary UK chart appearance with a 1971 reissue of “These Things…” Motown released a number of compilations in the group’s honor, including 2004’s 48-track double set The Velvelettes: The Motown Anthology.
In a statement, the Motown Museum said: “At the age of 20, Bertha along with the Velvelettes signed to Motown Records in 1962 and went on to release several R&B charting hits including ‘Needle in a Haystack’ in 1964. A true pioneer of American girl groups, Bertha helped promote the Motown sound and style worldwide. Bertha once recalled having a strong respect for Mr. Gordy and Motown’s recording engineers, musicians, writers, and producers.
“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.
“We honor Bertha for her great contributions to the legacy of Motown and we send our condolences to her family, friends, and fans all over the world.”