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Grande Ballroom Memories Rekindled

Of the Oakland Press

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On October 7, 1966, the Grande Ballroom opened for business. And on Saturday — 40 years to the day — Detroit remembers one of its rock ’n’ roll treasures.

The 40th anniversary gathering at the Royal Oak Music Theatre will recall the Grande’s six-year run as one of the country’s premiere rock venues, a home to early shows by

Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Who, the Jeff Beck Group, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention

and local heroes such as the MC5 (the Grande’s house band), the Stooges, the Rationals, Savage Grace and more.

The Grande, recalls Sam Andrew of Big Brother & the Holding Company, one of the headliners at Saturday’s show, “was one of the spots. It was a very cool place and a great crowd — really warm and wooden floors and kind of funky and hippie as opposed to later ballrooms.”

Built in 1928 at 8952 Grand River Ave. on Detroit’s west side, the Grande was the brainchild of “Uncle” Russ Gibb, a Dearborn school teacher and radio disc jockey (credited with popularizing the Beatles’ “Paul is Dead” rumor in 1969) who got the idea to open the Grande after visiting San Francisco earlier in 1966 and witnessing the counter-culture scene at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium.

Gibb and his compatriots — including emcee Dave Miller and theater manager Tom Wright — kept the joint rockin’ until fall of 1972, by which time, he says, money became the music industry’s primary concern and national touring acts “started using their own (opening) bands and Detroit bands were being squeezed out.”

Now 75 and retired from teaching, Gibb plans to be at Saturday’s reunion to share his memories. Before that, however, here are his top fi ve:

“The show that I remember most,” Gibb says, “was the Cream,” the British supergroup that played a three-night October 1967 run at the Grande. “We packed the place for three nights solid, two shows a night,” Gibb recalls. “It was an amazing, amazing thing. By this time the word was spreading back to England that (the Grande) was the venue for these English rock bands to play.”

The performer Gibb remembers most was, not surprisingly, the Stooges’ fl amboyant, hyperactive and inventive Iggy Pop. “I knew his father, who was a teacher, too. The first time Iggy played for me, he was at the time working during the summer as a counselor at YMCA camp in Ann Arbor. The first time in he came dressed in a Reynolds Wrap aluminum suit he made and tore it off during the show. The next time he performed he dragged in a toilet bowl thing with some kind of mic attached to it. And, of course, he would jump off the stage all the time.”

Gibb played singersongwriter Tim Buckley at the Grande the night before the Detroit riots broke out in 1967. Returning from an outing at Kensington Metropark, “we could see smoke coming from the Grande,” Gibb said, although he recalls with pride that “the Grande wasn’t touched during the riot. Nobody even broke in.” Nevertheless, he let Buckley’s African-American drummer

Carter “CC” Collins

drive through the riot zone to the theater to pick up the band’s gear while Gibb and Buckley hid in the back seat. “Just as we were leaving, two black youngsters came running down the street. Carter grabbed one and said ‘How come you’re not (damaging the Grande)?’ The kids said, ‘You got music, man.’ That stands in my mind.”

Janis Joplin, Gibb says, “was one of my favorite people, just a delight to work with — except when she was (angry).” One of those times was at the Grande, when Joplin was with Big Brother & the Holding Company and took exception to what she felt was excessive use of the strobe lights. “She came roaring into my office, ‘Get that ... thing off!’,” Gibb says with a laugh. “So, of course, we got that ... thing off.”

One of the few times Gibb got on stage at the Grande was during a show by Pentangle, a British prog-rock band known for its intricate instrumentation and intellectual lyricism. “The kids were just being outrageously rude, I thought,” Gibb remembers. “I got up on stage and said, ‘Look, if you can’t appreciate real musicianship, you can all go home and get your money back!’ I was just furious. They all calmed down; it was like my classes when I was a teacher.”

Big Brother & the Holding Co., Canned Heat, Arthur Brown and Third Power celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Grande Ballroom at 6 p.m. Saturday (October 7th) at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak. Tickets are $52.50. Call (248) 399-2980 or visit

Web Site: www.royaloakmusictheatre.com

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