Detroit’s Russ Gibb Remembered

The beloved school teacher and founder of Detroit’s legendary Grande Ballroom was 87

Russ Gibb on the mic

Russ Gibb has left the building. While Mr. Gibb may not have been a household name, the man known to Detroit music fans as “Uncle Russ” was an integral part of the Motor City’s rock scene for decades. Gibb had been struggling with several health issues over the past few years, and passed away at the age of 87 on Tuesday, April 30th.

Gibb may be best-known as the founder of the Grande Ballroom, the legendary music venue located on the west side of Detroit that Gibb opened in 1966. By this time, the 35-year-old entrepreneur had already enjoyed a career as a radio DJ and promoter who held sock hops at area schools. The Grande would become a mecca for Detroit’s unique brand of high-octane rock ‘n’ roll, and bands like the MC5, the Stooges, Alice Cooper, and the Amboy Dukes (with Ted Nugent) all got their start playing the Grande.

The Grande Ballroom was important for more than launching the careers of the aforementioned rock icons; Gibb had an uncanny knack of recognizing talent and legendary hall of famers like Led Zeppelin, Cream and the Who performed some of their first U.S. shows on the Grande stage. The Grande would become the subject of the 2012 documentary film Louder Than Love. Produced and directed by Tony D’Annunzio and featuring interviews with Gibb, John & Leni Sinclair, and members of bands like the MC5 and Alice Cooper, the movie won an Emmy™ award in 2016 for its PBS network broadcast. The Grande Ballroom building itself was added to the National Register of Historic Places in December 2018.

VIDEO: Cream – Live at Grande Ballroom

After divesting from the Grande in 1970, Gibb would later own or lease other live music venues in the area like the Eastown Theatre, the Michigan Theatre, and the Birmingham Palladium. Even in the 1980s, while working as a high school teacher, Gibb had his finger in live music, providing financial assistance towards opening Graystone Hall, a legendary all-ages Detroit punk rock club. Musician Corey Rusk (the Necros), who ran the indie rock Touch and Go Records label and promoted local shows, is quoted in Steve Miller’s 2013 book Detroit Rock City saying, “Russ ended up buying the Graystone, and the agreement was that he would put up the money and buy the building and he would buy a PA. I would agree that I was gonna run the place and do whatever the fuck it took to make it work and that he wasn’t going to put in any money beyond that.”

Rusk ran the club for a year and a half before relocating Touch and Go Records to Chicago. He remembers that Gibb “wasn’t going to make the club pay rent right away, but as soon as we got to the point where it was actually making money, then we needed to start paying some rent. But it never became profitable.” Gibb was also a partner in promoting the Goose Creek International Festival, held almost a year after Woodstock in August 1970 in Jackson County, west of Detroit. A festival crowd of almost 200,000 fans enjoyed performances by bands like Chicago, the Faces, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, and the James Gang. The event also featured a number of local rockers like Bob Seger, Detroit with Mitch Ryder, Brownsville Station, Third Power, the MC5, the Stooges, and SRC.

Goose Creek Park concert poster

Prior to opening the Grande Ballroom, Gibb had been hired by The Methodist Church to host a radio program called Night Call; broadcast by the Mutual Broadcasting Network, it was America’s first national call-in radio talk show. Gibb also hosted a national talk show on Canadian radio called Cross Country Checkup. As a popular Detroit area deejay with radio station WKNR-FM, Gibb played an integral role in the late ‘60s “Paul Is Dead” phenomenon. In October 1969, a caller to the station told Russ about the rumor that Paul McCartney of the Beatles had died. Gibb and subsequent callers spent the next hour discussing the rumor on air.

A couple days later, The Michigan Daily published a satirical review of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album written by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour, who heard Gibbs’ radio broadcast and, in his album review, jokingly “identified” (i.e. made up) various “clues” to McCartney’s alleged death on Beatles album covers. The story was later picked up by newspapers across the country and it would spread incredibly fast in the pre-Internet era. Gibb added fuel to the fire when he hosted a special two-hour program based on the rumor called “The Beatles Plot” in late October 1969.

 

VIDEO: The original “Paul is dead” radio call-in to Russ Gibb

While traveling in England in 1970, Gibb spent time in London with Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. It was while staying at Jagger’s estate that Gibb first became exposed to cable television via Mick’s home video system. Cable TV had yet to take off in the states, so when he returned home, Gibb bought cable franchises for several Michigan cities; the sale of these in the 1980s would make him quite wealthy. David A. Carson, in his 2005 book Grit, Noise and Revolution about the birth of the Detroit rock scene, wrote that Gibb and “his partner Michael Berry set up a fund called the Dearborn Cable Communication Fund to promote local programming and education.”

A longtime resident of the Detroit suburb of Dearborn (where Ford Motor Company is headquartered), Gibb spent much of his career at Dearborn High School, where he was my younger brother’s history teacher and, later, he became the school’s video production teacher, setting up a state-of-the-art facility for video and media production. Corey Rusk, in Detroit Rock City, remembers that Gibb “put a bunch of his own money into helping fund Dearborn High School having its own high school TV studio and station that was probably as good as the local television station set-up.” Gibb and his students would videotape shows at the aforementioned Graystone Hall for broadcast on local cable TV.

 

VIDEO: Dearborn High School moment of silence for Russ Gibb, the school’s Video Production Teacher

“In his teaching practice,” Scott Westerman wrote in an article about Gibb for the WKNR-FM website, “he fought for a brand of education that did not delineate between the arts, letters and numbers. To him there was science in music, there was art in equations and there was genius hidden somewhere inside every kid that sat in his classroom. Russ would probably want to be remembered for nurturing young talent, kids who went on to win Emmys, create computers from paper, develop early smart cards and Internet audio streams, and were catalysts that helped to redefine popular culture.”

My personal memories of Russ Gibb are the few times that I met him at Dearborn High School, which my brother attended from 1979-81. Students adored Gibb, who was the cool uncle they all wanted. He was a friendly, generous man with great stories. He hosted a Sunday night radio talk show at the time that my entire family would gather together to listen to, possible the only shared activity we’d all participated in for years. Gibb was smart, knowledgeable and interesting and was able to talk about a wide range of subjects. He was a natural in front of the microphone. His experience in radio and television no doubt brought a certain authority to his role as teacher.

Many of Gibb’s students stayed in contact through the years, even holding reunions every December after Gibb retired from teaching in 2004. One such former student, Andy Fradkin, an executive with Ford Motor Co, is quoted in the Detroit Free Press obit for Gibb saying about his former teacher “he’s grown people, he’s developed people, he’s helped people. He didn’t have a family of his own, but throughout the years, through his teaching and activities, he built a family of people through teaching video at Dearborn High.”

About the media program that Gibb began at DHS, Fradkin says “it started with a simple camera and microphone, and became a world-class program that produced Hollywood directors and people in other industries.” In the same Freep article, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, the Grande Ballroom’s house band, is quoted as tweeting “my dear old friend Russ Gibb has departed this earth. He will be sorely missed. He was one of a kind.” Gibb’s passing has inspired the #russgibb and #uncleruss hashtags on Twitter, with former students and other folks whose lives Russ touched remembering the life and legacy of the unsung hero of the Detroit rock scene.

Check out the Detroit Free Press story for more on Russ Gibb.

 

VIDEO: Remember Metro Detroit Legend Russ Gibb

Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

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