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Obituary

Bertha Barbee McNeal, Co-Founder Of The Velvelettes, Dead At 82

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KALAMAZOO, Mich (CelebrityAccess) — Bertha Barbee McNeal, co-founder of the Motown girl group the Velvelettes, died on Thursday. She was 82.

Her passing was also announced by the Motown Museum, who, in a series of social media posts, stated:

“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Motown alumnus Ms. Bertha Barbee-McNeal, a founding member of the Motown group The Velvelettes.

“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.”

A cause of death was not announced but McNeal was in treatment for colon cancer and had been receiving hospice care in Kalamazoo, Michigan for several weeks at the time of her death.

McNeal and Mildred Gill Arbor co-founded The Velvelettes in 1961 while both attending Western Michigan University and they recruited Norma Barbee, Carolyn ‘Cal’ Arbor and Cal’s friend Betty Kelley, who was still a junior in high school at the time.

The following year, the group signed with Motown Records and scored their first in in 1964 with “Needle in a Haystack” and followed it up the following year with “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin'” which peaked at number 64 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 but later proved to be a hit for Bananarama in 1982.


The Velvelettes put their musical careers on hiatus in the mid-1970s but revived the group in the 1980s and often appeared at the Motown Historical Museum.

McNeal is survived by a son, Marty McNeal, and a daughter, Melva Payton; a granddaughter, Cydni Payton, and grandson, Spencer Payton, per the Detroit News.

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