Yesterday morning Jenny played a song from a play called “Into the Woods”. It had pretty funny lyrics about going into the woods and it reminded me of when I was growing up in Dearborn back in the Forties.
The Rouge Parks Woods was about as far in the woods as we would go and that was pretty far out because it was near Outer Drive so that was the end of civilization as far as we were concerned. But John Cone and I, now remember that you could get a driver’s license when you were fourteen back then, were in his 1939 Mercury Car and he had his license. So we decided that what we were trying to do was to find a place in the woods where we could take some girls and could do “it”. Now I’m not going to tell you what “it” was, but you have an idea of two teenage boys horny with visions of Vargas Girls dancing in their heads.
So we took the car and started driving it around in Rouge Park and we came off onto what was a dirt road and we thought that this could be the place. This is where we could do “it”. And then we got stuck! We got stuck in the mud! We couldn't get the car out. The wheels were turning and turning and I was pushing and John was trying to put it into first it. We were rocking the car back and forth trying to get out, but there was nothing that we could do. So we hopped out onto Warren Ave. and there was a gas station with a tow truck there and we convinced the guy that we would give him $3.00, the cost of a tow back then, and he brought his truck into the woods and he said, “What were you guys doing back here in the woods?” and we said, “Well, we were just driving through.” And he said, “You were probably trying to find a place to do “it” right?”. So much for secret “it” places.
It’s amazing how many boys know about woods and “it”! Anyway, life in The Rouge Park Woods and trying to do “it”.
(photo by jenny)
O.k. I have had it! You can take your damn computers and shove it! Isn’t that the name of a song or something? But anyway, I am tired of people wanting me to do everything on the internet with e-mails and text messages. I’m an old fashioned guy! I like a phone. I like to be able to grab the phone, dial up a number, and actually talk to somebody. The computer is very impersonal. You don’t get the whole tone of what is going on. And when I am mad I want you to hear me being MAD! I don’t know how you do that in print either, except that you make the print big like I just did.
Anyway, there are those of us who are tired of all these computers and all of the web-sites ect. ect. ect. And let’s get back to putting telephone numbers on things and making it easy to call a company or a government office or whatever. People are hiding behind their computers. Yeah that’s what I said. They are hiding!
Mark Levin is probably one of the best radio talk show host/teacher on the air today. I listen to Mark on WJR Radio here in Michigan. He is incredible. He is also one of the most egotistical radio personalities that I have ever heard. He makes his callers pay homage and kiss his ring before he lets them say anything, but he is great and an amazing fount of information. I love the fact that Mark Levin is not afraid to call Obama a dictator and use the ‘I’ word for impeachment. He is a lawyer by profession and a character by birth. Tune him in, Mark LevinShow. You will enjoy what he has to say.
Wow! The other week a writer named Emily Bingham from Found Michigan came to my house and interviewed me about The Grande Ballroom. Wow! Probably one of the best tales that I have ever had told about me. I'm not sure if it is all true, but it sure made me feel good. Thanks Emily!
My Son, The Promoter
By Emily Bingham | April 18, 2013
Ask Detroiters of a certain age where they first saw Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Who, Janis Joplin—and just about every other major rock act of the 1960s—and they’ll probably tell you, “The Grande Ballroom.” They might even have a story or two about how they got to stand two inches from the stage, or even hung out with Eric Clapton after a show. And there would also probably be a nostalgic word or two thrown in about how those were better days for rock ‘n’ roll—all of which would be true. But none of it would have happened without a Dearborn high school teacher who for six years—the right six years—lit the fuse for Detroit’s rock scene and just as quickly walked away.
Russ Gibb does a lot of interviews. Every few months, a new round of visitors makes the pilgrimage to his Dearborn home to talk about Detroit’s golden age of rock ‘n’ roll. Most recently it was the BBC. And before that, it was a woman who works for Levi’s, apparently researching a new clothing line inspired by the gritty 1960s Detroit music scene. A snow-haired 82-year-old, slowed down by multiple back surgeries, Russ doesn’t exactly look like a guy who’d be the keeper of that legend. For today’s early-morning interview, he descends from the second floor via a motorized stair lift to get to his living room, which is filled with fresh flowers, framed photos of family and friends, and portraits of successive generations of his black Labrador retrievers. He’s dressed in pajamas and a bathrobe, and apologizes for not having shaved. By the fireplace, he sits like the grandfather who loves telling you all of his best stories from his glory days. Which is essentially what’s about to happen. Except that, unlike your grandfather’s stories, some of Russ’s best gems are about things like how he was once roommates with Eric Clapton.
He mentions how he always liked Cat Stevens’ music, even before they became good friends. And then there was the time he wanted to live overseas, so he rented Mick Jagger’s 400-year-old Stargroves estate and had Mick’s brother, Chris, as his chauffeur. Or how he arranged his first meeting with David Bowie on the mistaken presumption that he was meeting a mime. (“I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll bring a pantomimist to Detroit, that’ll be interesting for the kids,’” he says.) Russ’ life, it seems, has been lived inside a rock documentary. People ask him how he got it all so right. How he made it so big. How he, without ever picking up an instrument or microphone, essentially lit the fuse for the rock revolution in Detroit.
Russ’s answer? Great timing.
It was 1966 when Russ, then a twenty-something Dearborn social studies teacher and AM radio DJ, decided to drive his brand-new Ford Thunderbird from Detroit to California to visit his childhood friend Jim. One of their first stops together was San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, a then-up-and-coming (now legendary) hub for the psychedelic rock music scene that was emerging on the coasts. Beyond the Fillmore’s doors lay a universe foreign to Detroiters like Russ at the time: light shows, loud music, projectors casting trippy amoeba-like designs on the walls, and long-haired, bell-bottom-wearing kids dancing to live bands. There was even something Fillmore promoter Bill Graham called a “strobe light”—one of the first of its kind anywhere—that a college kid had built specifically for the Fillmore’s tripped-out rock shows. After only one night at the Fillmore, Russ wanted it all back in Detroit.
Back home, things had always been a little bit more wholesome. The closest that young folks often got to popular music was a weekend record hop—events where DJs would spin Top 20 hits on vinyl at rented VFW halls. If a musician happened to be in town to promote a record, he or she might be invited to perform—but only to lip sync to the album, not to sing live. Having hosted a number of record hops himself, Russ knew a thing or two about promoting, but nothing about what it took to pull off something like he had witnessed at the Fillmore. So he scheduled a sit-down with Bill Graham. “I asked Bill, ‘How do you do this, how do you get the bands?’ And the first thing he wanted to know was how far Detroit was from San Francisco. He didn’t want me to be competition,’” Russ says. “When I told him it was about 1,800 miles, he said, ‘OK, I’ll tell you what you want to know.’”
Armed with ideas—plus the phone number and address of the strobe light kid—Russ headed home and immediately set out to find a space for his Midwest version of the Fillmore. He settled on a building over on Detroit’s west side, a vacant old dance hall called the Grande Ballroom (pronounced “GRAN-dee”). A relic of the Roaring ’20s, the Grande’s ornate second-floor auditorium had room for about 1,500 people, plus a huge dance floor surrounded by decorative columns. Over the years it had been home to everything from jitterbugging jazz shows to a rollerskating rink. When Russ happened on it, it had been serving as a mattress storage facility and was still filled with inventory. On paper, it was in a terrible location: miles from Detroit’s downtown entertainment district, in what many people considered a bad neighborhood. To Russ, that was the clincher.
“If you tell young people, ‘Mother said don’t go down there, it’s too dangerous,’ they want to go down there. So we had that going for us,” he jokes.
The Grande’s neighborhood scared away any potential investors, though, and Russ ultimately had to go it alone. When it came time to sign the lease, he was still $300 shy of the $1,000 down payment, but he managed to sweet talk the Grande’s owner into handing over the keys anyway. All that he needed now were some bands, and through a series of introductions, he found the MC5, an up-and-coming rock group out of Lincoln Park. (“Of course, back then, they looked more like the Beatles than the rock band remembered today,” Russ says.) He booked them for the Grande’s opening night alongside another local band, The Chosen Few, and had a psychedelic poster made, promoting the show as “a dance concert in the San Francisco style.” Not that kids in Detroit would have known what the hell that meant.
On the Grande’s opening night—October 7, 1966—$2.50 granted you entrance into Russ’s own slice of San Francisco. A winding staircase led you up to the ballroom, at the back of which was the stage, recessed into an alcove in the wall. Behind the stage, floating blobs of color danced on a projection screen. All around the room were toys—miniature bicycles, bouncy balls, sandboxes—that Russ had bought on a last-minute whim from the toy store down the street. The music was loud, but the crowd was not—only about 160 people showed up that first night, and Russ went home without a dime. But then, the next night, there were 200 people. And the following weekend, there were even more. Within five weeks, the Grande was jammed.
In those early days, the Grande became an incubator for Detroit’s own music. Part of this was necessity—local bands were all Russ could afford. But it was also because Russ yearned for a scene where bands could cut their creative teeth and do more than just play covers of tunes by the Beatles or Rolling Stones. For years, the MC5, who had helped him kick things off in October 1966, anchored the scene as the Grande’s house band. Hundreds of Detroit musicians got their start at the Grande. Some, like local boys Ted Nugent and Iggy Pop, even used the Grande’s stage as a stepping stone to stardom.
One of the best parts of the Grande was how close it put you to the musicians. Kids flocked to the place because they knew they could sit just inches from the stage. “I let them do what they wanted to,” Russ says. “They wanted to be close to the stage, so I said, ‘Don’t put guards on the stage. They want to crawl on the stage? Let them crawl on the stage—who cares?’” Once word spread, and nightly profits grew, Russ began reaching out to book bigger acts. The Grande’s lineup was always eclectic, from British Invasion groups to African-American blues musicians—something that was still considered revolutionary for a “white” nightclub. To the bands, he sold Detroit as the perfect cross-country stop-over between gigs on the East and West Coasts. He says his first big score was The Fugs, an experimental rock group out of New York who came to the Grande for a three-night run. The Fugs were soon followed by other big names of the era: Vanilla Fudge, The Byrds, James Gang, the Grateful Dead.
Both the bands and the fans raved about the Grande’s incredible acoustics—compliments of the building’s original plaster artist whose personal touch was plastering horsehair into the walls so they’d reverberate without crumbling. And since Russ was still an AM radio DJ, he got into the habit of playing records by the bands he had booked as a way to promote the Grande’s shows. The result was the audience could often sing along with a group’s entire set—which was nothing short of mind-blowing for young touring bands, many of whom were British outfits who had never been to America before, much less Detroit. The Who, in particular, became smitten with the Grande, and began using the place as their Midwestern homebase during American tours—even premiering their rock opera Tommy there to a sweaty Detroit crowd in May 1969.
By this time, all the friends who had turned Russ down on investing were now calling him up. But by then, he didn’t need their money anymore.
“My father and mother had always been very proud I was a teacher. That was a step up in our community. So it had always been: ‘My son, the teacher.’ Well, the first night I hosted Cream at the Grande, it was about four in the morning, and I brought home all this money,” Russ remembers. “I was living with my parents at the time. I put the money on the kitchen table and one of my employees was there, and we were counting, and there were thousands of dollars. Thousands of dollars. My father woke up, heard the commotion, came in and looked at all this money—bags of money—and said, ‘Oh my God, what’d you do, rob a bank?’ And I said, ‘No, this is my profit.’ I had made $25,000 that night. After that, to my parents, it was: ‘My son, the promoter.’”
There were a lot of nights like that for Russ Gibb. But as the calendar rolled over into the 1970s, all the elements that had brought Russ such quick success—inexpensive acts, low overhead, lack of competition—were starting to evaporate. The rock scene of the early ‘70s was a lot different than the one Russ had helped jump-start in 1966. Bands that Russ had played as underground acts on his AM radio show in the ‘60s were now playing arena-sized venues. On the Detroit leg of their 1971 tour, The Who, who had been among the Grande’s early darlings, opted to play Cobo Hall instead. Gone were the days of bands cruising into town in their own vans and crashing on couches—or, in the Grande’s case, backstage mattresses left over from one of the building’s previous lives. The industry was entering the era of tour busses, VIP seating, backstage passes and six-figure contracts. And, with new rock venues popping up around Detroit, the Grande was no longer the only place in town with a strobe light.
Fleetwood Mac at the Grande in 1968. (Photo by Tom Weschler)
FLEETWOOD MAC AT THE GRANDE, 1968 // PHOTO BY TOM WESCHLER
For Russ, this new high-maintenance version of the rock scene ran counter to everything he’d fallen in love with in San Francisco in 1966. And whether it was because he’d always had a rebellious streak, or because all this time he’d never abandoned his teaching job, he actually began thinking about getting out of the business.
“It was greed,” Russ says, exasperation still lingering in his voice some 40 years later. “When we started out, the contracts for bands were one sheet. Now, they were 22 pages. You had to have certain kinds of beer, certain kinds of hotel rooms. I had booked the Rolling Stones to play for me one time, and I had to give them $100,000 seven months in advance. That was a lot of money. I ended up having to pay for their advertising, their equipment, all their expenses. So that’s when I said, ‘I don’t want to be in this anymore. This business is being corrupted.’”
By 1972, Russ’s heart was simply no longer in it. And almost as quickly as he’d lit the fire for Detroit’s now-thriving rock scene, he decided to extinguish his own role within it. On New Year’s Eve, 1972, the MC5 took the Grande’s stage for what ended up being the band’s final show. It was the Grande’s final show as well. Detroit’s most epic rock palace was history.
Forty years later, the Grande still occupies a special place in Detroit’s rock legacy. Ask Detroiters of a certain age about the Grande, and they’ll gladly wax poetic about the time they went out for pizza with Eric Clapton after his show. Or got sweat on by Pete Townshend on a night when temperatures in the Grande topped 100 degrees. Or sat on the stage two feet from Roger Waters the first time Pink Floyd came to town. It was the place a lot of Detroiters saw their first rock show—when rock ‘n’ roll was still counterculture, and Detroit Rock City was still earning its name. But mainly, people love thinking about the Grande because it takes them back to the days before metal fences and 20 rows of VIP floor seating began separating the real fans from the people who were making the music.
Of course, the guy with the most memories to share is still Russ Gibb. Ask him his favorite one, and a wry smile sneaks across his face: That night when it was The Who drummer Keith Moon’s birthday, he remembers, and a whole group of us started flinging off our clothes and put on roller skates—left over from the days when the Grande was a roller rink—and skated around the dance floor until 3 or 4 a.m. A birthday party in our birthday suits. Like so many of the Grande’s fans, Russ is saddened, too, when he talks about the ballroom’s current state. Essentially unused since that final show in 1972, the ballroom stands today as another terribly deteriorated Detroit landmark, neglected by its owners, plundered by scrappers, and pretty much just waiting for the wrecking ball.
As today’s particular interview wears on, the conversation eventually veers to Russ’ other passions: politics, God, and of course, teaching. He talks about the book he wrote in the 1970s—a treatise on all that was wrong with the American education system—titled School Makes You Want to Quit. He likens his teaching style to the way he ran the Grande: with a long leash and great faith in people’s creativity. He mentions the time he insisted that an outside door be installed on his school’s A/V production room so that his students could access the tools there whenever they were feeling inspired. “I wanted them to be able to go in there 24 hours a day; none of this ‘You can’t go in there, the school’s closed.’ You can’t tell creative people when they can be creative. That’s like telling a painter when they can paint. Bullshit.”
Obviously, at 82, the fire to create hasn’t gone out in Russ Gibb either. But after awhile, he rubs his eyes and abruptly announces that he’s tired. “Are we done?” he gently asks. For now, apparently, he is. As the keeper of these stories, he’s still the one calling the shots. But it’s only a matter of a time before the next reporter comes knocking.
Emily Bingham is co-founder of Found Michigan.
This is a true story.
When I first started to teach in Romulus Michigan the first family to invite me into their home for dinner, and that was a custom back then, was Brenda Craighead. She had invited me over for Sunday Dinner at her home in Romulus Michigan with her family. And I remember asking my father, “She's a black girl. Should I go there?”. And he said, “What are you talking about? Of course!”, because he had worked with black men. He was a factory worker and he understood that people are people. So I went there and to be honest I didn't know what to expect. But I got there. And what did we have for dinner? Chicken, fried chicken! And I thought oh but then after dinner she sat at the piano and the whole family gathered around her and they sang. Beautiful, it was beautiful. Brenda Craighead.
If there is anyone out there who has graduated from Romulus High School and know of a Brenda Craighead from back in the 50's, please let her know that Russ Gibb still enjoys the kindness that she and her family had shown me when I was just a new teacher in Romulus Michigan years and years ago.
I was watching Kid Rock On an interview show on television the other night. Amazing! Do you know what he is planning? A new concert tour where he has made it that no ticket costs more than $20 plus beer is only $4. That is amazing! They ought to erect a statue towards him because he makes so much common sense.
One of the reasons that I got out of the Rock 'n' Roll business was because the prices were getting outrageous. Back then I was getting nailed by the hippie papers for charging $5 to see The Who. But the bottom line is that this guy makes so much common sense and he is still going to make plenty of money at $20 a ticket. I have a friend who recently paid $200 a ticket to see Eric Clapton play at The Royal Albert Hall in London. Outrageous! Outrageous! Now I think that Clapton is a great guy, but the amount of money that these guys who run the concerts are raking in on this stuff is immoral and I am glad that Kid Rock has finally stood up and said “No! Enough!”. What can I say? This guy's rap is superb! Let's hear it for Kid Rock! Yay, Kid Rock!
Oh! And also if any of you know of Kid Rock's E-mail or Twitter accounts send this to him will ya?
OK, I tried. I tried real hard. I tried to watch the John Stewart show. I am sorry. He doesn't do it for me.
Bo-ooo-ring and rather silly for an old man. Also, if you haven't figured out that the laughter is on cue and their reaction is on cue. I'm sure that they have a guy with big signs that light up and say "laugh", "applaud", and "hoot & holler", because if ever I heard guys Hooting and hollering about things that aren't funny it was certainly on the John Stewart Show.
He's tried to pretend that he is a cross between a Conservative and a Liberal, but he's just an unfunny man in my opinion. If you like him that's your problem not mine. I will never watch him again! Bo-ooo-ring!!!