by Russ McCollum Detroit Free Press
Russ Gibb, the farsighted arts lover and entrepreneur who helped ignite Detroit’s live rock scene, died Tuesday in Garden City after a series of medical struggles. The longtime Dearborn resident was 87.
Gibb — a larger-than-life character known to local music fans as “Uncle Russ” — transformed the Grande Ballroom into Detroit’s psychedelic-rock palace in 1966, a game-changing move that launched an indelible chapter in Detroit music history. It was just one hallmark in a colorful life that included decades as a beloved video-production teacher at Dearborn High School.
Gibb, who had been battling health issues the past several years, was rushed Tuesday afternoon to Garden City Hospital after suffering respiratory distress while at the Heartland rehabilitation center in Dearborn Heights. He died Tuesday evening at the hospital, said Andy Fradkin, a former student of Gibb who held power of attorney.
The gregarious, quick-witted Gibb was forever a young soul: He was in his mid-30s — notably older than much of his clientele — when he leased the Grande on Detroit’s west side and turned it into the city’s hippie-era rock mecca, helping nurture the careers of homegrown bands such as the MC5, the Stooges, Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent while putting visitors like Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Who and the Grateful Dead onstage for the city’s ravenous rock audience.
He’d been savvy enough to get in on the rock ‘n’ roll game early, staging sock hops at area schools in the early ’60s and working as a disc jockey.
“Detroit has a beat: the pounding out of fenders, the pounding of bumpers, the day-by-day grind that made us,” Gibb told the Free Press in 2003. “You had to have the beat, because even on the line, things came through with a rhythm. Every three or four minutes, that line would move and you’d have to pound on the hubcaps. There was always a rhythm to Detroit.”
Gibb was on the air at WKNR-FM in October 1969 when a listener called to discuss rumors, then circulating on the underground, that Beatle Paul McCartney had died. Gibb gleefully took up the discussion on his show, pushing the story into the limelight and ultimately helping kick off a cottage industry of “Paul is dead” conspiracy theories based on clues from Beatles lyrics and imagery.
But Gibb’s impact in metro Detroit loomed far larger than his role in that prank, as artists and former Dearborn High students attested Tuesday night.
“My dear old friend Russ Gibb has departed this earth. He will be sorely missed. He was one of a kind,” tweeted Wayne Kramer of the MC5, the raucous Downriver group that became the Grande’s house band.
“He’s always been a people-person,” said Fradkin, a student of Gibb in the ’90s and now an executive with Ford Motor Co. “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.”
The Grande, a ballroom built in the 1920s, was a mattress warehouse when Gibb leased it in 1966. He’d been inspired by a recent trip to San Francisco, where old Detroit friend and fellow disc jockey Jim Dunbar introduced Gibb to that city’s budding counterculture epicenter, 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 wall and it’s crawling with pictures — projectors and a strobe light. I was totally blown away by this thing,” Gibb recounted in 2003. “Somewhere in the evening, Jim says, ‘Come meet Bill.’ It was (rock impresario) Bill Graham. A very smart man: He knew when you’ve got the media, you treat ’em kindly. So we were ushered into his office. I told him, ‘This is a terrific place. I do sock hops, but Detroit has no place like this.'”
Within months, Gibb had leased the Grande, purchased a strobe light from a Californian hippie recommended by Graham, and opened the doors with an MC5 show — for “60 or 70 kids,” as Gibb recalled.
The Grande Ballroom was soon Detroit’s go-to rock destination, and under Gibb’s operation through 1969, the venue hosted a mouth-watering array of national acts along with the who’s-who of Detroit rock. Gibb’s ballroom was hippie flower-power with a flex of Detroit muscle, and it became the scene of landmark moments, including the recording of the MC5’s influential debut album, “Kick Out the Jams,” and the launch of the Who’s “Tommy” tour.
“Before that, we had Motown and the local groups,” said longtime friend Steve Kott. “He was bringing in the MC5 and the West Coast bands — people you didn’t know about unless you were really hip. He started it all. He really changed the music scene for Detroit.”
Detroit filmmaker Tony D’Annunzio came to know Gibb while making the 2012 documentary “Louder Than Love,” chronicling Grande history.
“He opened up so much great music to so many people,” said D’Annunzio. “He had his finger on the pulse every step of the way.”
Gibb’s music-industry forays didn’t end when he divested from the Grande in 1969. A year after Woodstock, he was a partner in the August 1970 Goose Lake International Music Festival in Jackson County, west of Detroit, where a crowd estimated at 200,000 took in artists such as Bob Seger, the Faces, Jethro Tull and others.
The Grande earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places last year, thanks largely to a campaign by the group Friends of the Grande. Leo Early, who spearheaded the effort, wrote late Tuesday: “It might not have made that list were it not for Russ’ dreams realized and the scene that sprouted from them.”
While Gibb certainly carved his place in Detroit rock, thanks to a combo of cultural intuition and unapologetic ambition, his real legacy may have been with his students at Dearborn High.
Just as he was in the 1960s, Gibb remained ahead of the curve. The lava lamp in his school office may have been a relic, but he was tuned in and turned on to the latest innovations bubbling up — and as ever, he let young people take the lead. A 1999 New York Times article documented the latest project developed by his tech-savvy students: a mobile webcam that let teens stream their daily activities to classmates.
Many of Gibb’s students stayed in close contact through the years — even reuniting each December — after time in his classes, from which he retired in the mid-2000s.
“It started with a simple camera and microphone, and became a world-class program that produced Hollywood directors and people in other industries,” said Fradkin. “Ultimately he thought of himself as a facilitator, where kids ran the class and operations, and he was more of the magic behind the curtain to bring it all together.”
Gibb’s mark on Detroit rock was “a whole different chapter,” Fradkin said. “That’s what he was very well known for. But he always preferred to talk about his teaching and the kids. That was always his focus later on.”