Bertha Barbee McNeal, a pioneer in the Motown genre, passed away at the age of 82, and her death has been met with widespread sadness among the genre’s devotees.
The vocalist, best known for her work with The Velvelettes, passed away on Thursday in Kalamazoo, Michigan (December 15).
Due to the extreme stage of her colon cancer, she had to spend several weeks receiving treatment in a hospice.
After playing together for the last time in July in Kalamazoo, McNeal’s other band members have paid respect to him.
Cal Gill Street, the lead vocalist of the band, broke the news to the Detroit Press that her “dearest friend,” whom she called “Bertie,” had passed away.
And, “even when she was upset,” she never heard her use foul language or speak badly of anyone.
She was an Earthly angel who could transcend such limitations. She served as the group’s “glue,” or “thing that stopped us from suffocating.”
The Motown Museum also commented on McNeal’s loss, saying, “It is with great regret that we announce the passing of Motown alumnus Ms. Bertha Barbee-McNeal, a founding member of the Motown group The Velvelettes.”
McNeal was praised as a “community leader and educator” in an additional statement.
One of Bertha’s goals in life, they added, was to encourage the next generation of talented women.
She attended numerous museum events, such as Hitsville Honors in 2019 and the formal inauguration of Rocket Plaza in August of this year, and was a dedicated supporter of the Motown Museum.
She was beloved by both the museum’s current employees and its many former visitors for her warmth and sweetness.
McNeal, a co-founder of The Velvelettes, wrote the hit songs “Needle in a Haystack” and “(He Was) Really Saying Something,” both of which were also covered by other bands.
The British band Bananarama covered the latter, while Amy Winehouse often credited the Velvelettes as an inspiration.
A member of the band, Street, accepted the Community Medal of Arts on behalf of McNeal and himself from the Kalamazoo Arts Council earlier this month.
McNeal, then 21, and Street, only 14 at the time, met in 1961 and became fast friends over a shared passion for singing.
After some time, they teamed up with Betty Kelly, Annette McMillan, and Sandra Tilley, all formerly of the Velvelettes, as well as Carolyn Gill, Mildred Gill, and Norma Barbee.
McNeal enjoyed teaching piano lessons in addition to performing, and she continued doing so until just before she entered hospice care.