How Russ Gibb shaped and influenced Detroit rock 'n' roll with iconic Grande Ballroom
The man who owned the legendary Grande Ballroom died this week
The Who. Led Zeppelin. Iggy Pop. Alice Cooper.
Besides being rock and roll legends, all of these artists have another thing in common: they performed at the legendary rock 'n' roll club the Grande Ballroom in the late '60s and early '70s and helped shape the hippie counterculture of the day.
Russ Gibb, affectionately known to music fans as "Uncle Russ," owned the Grande Ballroom and was responsible for bringing some of the most amazing talent in rock 'n' roll to his Detroit club. Gibb died Tuesday in Garden City, Michigan, after a series of medical struggles.
Gibb took a trip to San Francisco in the '60s and was inspired by another iconic music venue: the Fillmore.
"(We go into this place) and for the first time in my life I see hundreds of long-haired people, the bell-bottoms. I look up at the wall and it's crawling with pictures — projectors and a strobe light. I was totally blown away by this thing," Gibb told the Detroit Free Press in a recently published interview from 2003.
Even though Gibb was in his 30s around this time, he saw the potential that a hip psychedelic rock 'n' roll venue could have in a city like Detroit. Motown had already put Detroit on the map as far as cities creating music, so Gibb knew that if he opened up a venue, people would come.
Gibb took interest in the local rock scene in the city and started to book bands that embodied the complete opposite of the cultural norms of the time. The guys in the bands looked nothing like the preppy fraternity-bound men who spent their summers at the yacht clubs. They were, as Gibb described them, "factory rats" who were looking for an escape from living in a Rust Belt city.
Gibb booked Iggy Pop in his early days when he was performing with the Stooges after he auditioned for Gibb with a microphone rigged into a toilet. The rest was history for Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
MC5 was another band that got its start at the Grande Ballroom, thanks to Gibb. Another Detroit music scene legend, activist John Sinclair, told Gibb about MC5 and said he had to check them out. MC5's sound was deeply rooted in the blues, but guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith laid down a much heavier sound, something that Gibb had never heard of. They eventually became a house band at the venue.
"The next time I see 'em, they've got bell-bottoms and bangles and necklaces. And quite frankly, what they played that night, to my ears, was not music. I had not heard that (heavy) stuff yet," said Gibb.
Along with MC5 and the Stooges, the Grande Ballroom was also home to an undiscovered Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent. MC5's sound went on to influence the births of punk and garage rock. Many bands often cite MC5 and the Stooges as major influences.
The guys in the band even recorded their live debut album, called "Kick Out The Jams," right inside the Grande Ballroom itself. Gibb told the Detroit Free Press that it was a struggle to keep the cops from breaking up the show.
Besides providing a home for local Detroit rock musicians to flex their skills, Gibb also booked national acts that were on the cusp of making it big. Today, these groups are now some of the most influential artists of all time and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers.
Gibb brought the Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Grateful Dead and countless other influential rock icons to perform at the Grande Ballroom. Even blues legends like B.B. King and Muddy Waters performed at the Grande Ballroom. King is interviewed in a 2012 documentary about the club and said that he had never been treated better than he was at the Grande Ballroom. If only the walls in the joint could talk.
Gibb tells lots of incredible stories in the book "Detroit Rock City" and he name drops such legends as Eric Clapton (who he took shopping once in Dearborn), experimental jazz musician Sun Ra and many others.
Before Gibb dipped his toes into transforming the Grande Ballroom into a rock club, he was a disc jockey who played a lot of the Detroit sounds of the time on the radio and planned sock hops at nearby schools.
One of his best moments while he was on air was back in 1969 when someone called into the station wanting to discuss rumors floating around that Paul McCartney was dead. As the story goes, Gibb took the bait and had some fun with the rumor and inadvertently started the "Paul is dead" conspiracy theories. There were tons of theories at the time that McCartney was dead based off intense readings of Beatles lyrics and imagery. Of course, none of them were true, but it did put Gibb in the spotlight.
Gibb closed the venue in 1972 and continued his life as a high school teacher in Dearborn, Michigan. Many close friends of Gibb's say that his true passion was teaching, and he remained close friends with many of his students, who went on to do amazing things like creating the TV show "Northern Exposure" and writing for the hit TV series "Gilmore Girls."
Despite it being decades since the Grande Ballroom closed, it still gets remembered by the artists who once played there. The last time the Who played a concert in Detroit, guitarist Peter Townsend met with Gibb before the show and gave the Grande Ballroom and the Detroit music scene a shoutout during the show.
The Grande Ballroom never recovered after the venue closed and is practically in ruins at this point. The building did land a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019 and is ready for intense renovations by any ambitious investor.
And as for Gibb, he will mostly be remembered by the students he taught over his long career in Dearborn schools, but for the kids who frequented the Grande Ballroom in its heyday, he will be remembered for bringing people together to bond over one thing that we all love: music.
Graham Media Group 2019