Bertha Barbee McNeal, a singer in the early Motown group the Velvelettes, died Thursday (December 15), The Detroit News reports. She had been receiving hospice care for colon cancer in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the weeks before her death, according to The Detroit News. The Velvelettes’ lead singer, Cal Gill Street, said in a statement, “She was an angel. I’ve lost my dearest friend. She was the group historian, and the glue that kept us together.”
Raised in Flint, McNeal co-founded the Velvelettes at Western Michigan University in the 1960s. They successfully auditioned at Motown, and made a splash with the Billboard Top 100 singles “Needle in a Haystack” and “He Was Really Saying Something,” both early landmarks for the producer Norman Whitfield. Bananarama had a hit covering the latter in 1982, and Amy Winehouse cited the group as an influence while recording Back to Black.
After a string of ’60s Motown singles that continued with “Lonely, Lonely Girl Am I,” the Velvelettes parted ways and completed their college degrees, and McNeal began a long career teaching in Michigan public schools. The group reunited first in 1984 and several more times in the ensuing decades, including, in 2019, for Motown’s 60th anniversary Hitsville Honors celebration in Detroit.
In a statement reported by The Detroit News, the Motown Historical Museum called McNeal “a community leader and educator,” adding, “Bertha’s passion was to inspire young girls, particularly the next generation of female talent.”