Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Cal Street (The Velvelettes): She is really sayin' something (Part 1)

Cal Street: The Velvelettes
Cal Street: The Velvelettes Cal Street (Velvelettes) & Stevie Wonder Marv Tarplin, Harry Weigner and Cal Sreet (Velvelettes) Cal Street (Velvelettes) at Levi Stubbs' tribute

It’s taken awhile to track this lady down and when I did late last year she graciously contributed to Motown Tracking, before agreeing to have a chinwag about her life and career. It goes without saying that The Velvelettes helped shape the sound of Motown back in the day with the groundbreaking, almost iconic songs like “Needle In A Haystack”, “He Was Really Sayin’ Something” and my ultimate favourite “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You”. Hell, I love ‘em all.

Anyway, before my journey with Cal Street, let’s backtrack a minute. The Velvelettes were born during 1961 by Mildred Gill Arbor and Bertha Barbie McNeal. After a while, Mildred recruited her younger sister Cal (Carolyn), her best friend Betty Kelley, while Bertha invited Norma Barbee, her cousin. And this is Cal Street’s story.

Born on 10 August in the late-forties, she was the middle child of seven children – “ There are three siblings (two brothers and a sister) over me, and two brothers and a sister under me. I was very much a tomboy during my youth because I’m sandwiched between the four boys.. So, the boys were my playmates until I turned around 13 years old, and I started noticing and liking boys as in boy/girl relationships. However, my parents didn’t let me date. I didn’t date until I moved to Detroit in at the age of sixteen.” Cal added that their parents were Reverend Willie and Mrs. Dora Gill, both born in the state of Mississippi into large families - “They moved from Mississippi to Michigan with three children (Mildred, Richard and Charles) in the early forties.”

The family lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a quiet, conservative, college town that was the halfway point between Chicago and Detroit. It’s the home for Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, as well as the world famous Gibson Guitar Company. “We had an upright piano in our home that we played all the time” the Velvelette continued. “You can imagine the beating it took from seven children. Mildred was the oldest, so she was given piano lessons, while Billy and Roger and myself played by ear. The others didn’t show much interest in the piano, so me and my two younger brothers would make up tunes and play along with the music we heard on the radio! We had to sneak to listen to secular music because my father was a Baptist preacher, as was his father, and he was also a baker ”.

As Cal got older, she was exposed to all types of music, mostly via the radio. She takes up the story – “We listened… all the time – mainly to country western. My mother loved country-western music. My dad bought albums of religious/spiritual music, mainly by Rev. C.L. Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s father), and he played the albums on an old record player we had. He encouraged us to sing along with the music, and noticed I had a knack for singing the lead most of the time. So, he encouraged me to lead the congregation in song when we attended church. We stayed in church - which seemed like all day on Sundays - where we did a lot of singing of ‘Negro’ spirituals, and studying of the Bible … and played with other preacher’s kids. My father preached old fashioned ‘fire and brimstone’ Baptist sermons, and would pray until the food got cold on the table during our family dinners.”

Cal’s life was to change further when she moved away from home to live with relatives in Detroit. The couple had no children of their own and dearly wanted to take care of Cal, whom they loved very much. “ I can remember them asking my parents when they came to visit us in Kalamazoo . . . ‘just let us raise her (me), we just want to help since you have so many children.’ I became the envy of the family due to this special attention they’d give me whenever they visited Kalamazoo. My brothers would often tease me when …my uncle and aunt pulled up in front of the house. They’d say ‘they’re coming to get you, Cal’ - then we’d all get up from the front steps and run around, inside and out of the house, hiding from them as they got out of the car to come inside.”

Eventually, her parents reluctantly agreed, and when the young girl was twelve, she relocated to Detroit to live with her aunt and uncle. “My father never objected, as I’m sure he was thinking (since he was the ‘breadwinner’), it’d be one less mouth to feed – ha! At any rate, moving away from my siblings at such a young age proved to be too much for me. I got so homesick they had to bring me back home after three-four weeks in Detroit!” She soon realised her mistake because within a week of her return, Cal became aware of her brothers and sisters’ jealousy, because - “I came back home with loads of new clothes and with somewhat of an attitude. My aunt had bought me three different wardrobes of clothing (one for school, one for play and one for church). My siblings picked at me and threw my clothes all over … and in the bedroom that I shared with my oldest sister, Mildred (who was seventeen at that time). She treated me like a step sister and that was hard on me. We had twin beds, and even though her bed was on one side of the double windows and my bed was on the other side, she managed to make my life miserable when I came back from Detroit! The four boys had their own bedrooms on the other side of the small hall upstairs, but they managed to sneak in and invade our bedroom - and to throw my clothes around my bed and on the floor. It was terrible the way they treated me.”

In Detroit, she had lived with her upper middle classed relatives, and enjoyed the privileges of that status - something she hadn’t realised until her return to her family home. It wasn’t that her family were poor, Cal told me, rather they lived modestly, but - “there were no three wardrobes of clothing, and a bedroom and television to myself. In Detroit, however, the quietness in the beautiful home of my uncle and aunt made me cry a lot because I was used to hearing a lot of chatter and activity at home in Kalamazoo. Then there was the riding in a Cadillac - my uncle always drove a Cadillac automobile - and they had a cabin cruiser boat that slept ten people. My uncle belonged to the Eldorado Boat Club that docked their boats and yachts on the river at the world famous Roostertail Super Club! So, yes, I was very privileged while living in Detroit!”

However, returning to Kalamazoo, shaped the start of Cal’s musical future when she formed her own singing group in the 9th grade of junior high school. Her sister Mildred was a regular contributor to high school musicals and church choirs. “Somewhere along the line, after Mildred went to Western Michigan University, she co-founded a singing group on campus with Bertha Barbee. They sang a little around campus, but it wasn’t until they realized they needed to form serious group of singers, that Mildred took me to audition, along with my best girlfriend from childhood, Betty Kelley. We were immediately ushered into the group, along with Bertha’s cousin, Norma Barbee, from Flint, Michigan. After winning a talent show that was put on by a college fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, a student by the name of Robert Bullock (who was also in college at Western Michigan University), advised us to go to Detroit to audition with his uncle’s record company. Well, his uncle was none other than Berry Gordy, Jr., and he was the founder of Motown Records!”
The girls signed with Motown in 1962 and started recording a year later. The downside to this exciting time in their lives was the constant travelling to and from Kalamazoo. For example, they needed to be in Detroit every other weekend to either record, perform on teen dance television shows, visit radio stations, attend record hops and so on. “The Velvelettes made many appearances in and around the Detroit area, and in Windsor, Canada, for the sake of promoting our music. So, it made better sense for me to live in Detroit, that way I’d not miss so much of my high schooling either.” Help was at hand though for Cal because, as she had written to her aunt and uncle on several occasions asking for their forgiveness, they agreed she could return to their home. “It was certainly hallelujah time for me! I had convinced my uncle and aunt to let me come live with them, plus I was recording music at Motown! What more could a young girl from Kalamazoo Michigan want!”

In part two... Don’t miss Cal Street’s views about her stay at Motown, the artists who influenced her, and why she’s still in the business.

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Go to Cal Street interview part 2

Cal Street will be appearing with the Velvelettes at the Prestatyn Legends of Motown & Soul weekender between 15th - 17th of October. To find out more please go to

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