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Russ Gibb, Grande Ballroom founder and more, dies at 87

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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"Uncle" Russ Gibb was never comfortable taking full credit for the Grande Ballroom, the Detroit theater that was one of a handful of early rock 'n' roll palaces in the U.S.

"It wasn't a one-man routine -- I just happened to be the guy that signed the lease," Gibb -- who as a DJ on Detroit's WKNR helped spread rumors that Paul McCartney was dead in 1969 -- said during 2006. "You have to talk about Tom Wright, the manager, Dave Miller, the emcee...there were a lot of people that made the Grande work."

Gibb's name, however, is inextricably linked to the Grande and to Detroit's rich rock 'n' roll history. He passed away on Tuesday, April 30, in Garden City at the age of 87 after years of declining health, leaving a legacy not only in music but also in education as a video and media production teacher at Dearborn High School and an early adapter to local access cable TV, where he guided students in creating shows such as "Back Porch Video."

"He was one of a kind," Wayne Kramer of the MC5, which was the house band at the Grande, tweeted late Tuesday night -- on his own birthday -- as news of Gibb's death began to spread.

"The man was a true visionary," added Tony D'Annunzio, director of the Emmy Award-winning 2012 documentary "Louder Then Love: The Grande Ballroom Story." "The part people connect with most is obviously the Grande Ballroom, but when I met him and started talking to him and got to know him more, that was just a small slice of his life. The stuff he did before and after touched so many people. He was monumental."

Sharp and a bit crusty, Gibb got into teaching first, working in Howell. He moved into music by working part time at WKNR in Dearborn and DJing at local sock hops -- where he "made more money in one night than in about three weeks of teaching." He was already operating the Grande when he made international news via the "Paul is Dead" rumor. It began on Oct. 12, 1969, during his radio shift at Detroit's WKNR when Gibb took a call from a listener claiming that the Beatles bassist had died as early in 1966 and been replaced by a cosmetically altered look-alike. The caller encouraged Gibb to play the group's "Revolution 9" backwards, with its purported message of "turn me on dead man," setting off a firestorm of speculation that spread around the world.

"The whole thing just exploded," Gibb recalled. "The phones were ringing off the hook. People were calling with their own clues. It was non-stop." Gibb laughed as he remembered WKNR owner Frank Maruca telling him, "Whatever you're doing, just keep doing it." He even called Eric Clapton, a friend in England, to ask if he knew anything about it. "He told me, 'Come to think of it, I haven't seen Paul for awhile...'

"It was really a phenomenon. For awhile, it seemed like it might really be true."

The Grande, of course, was Gibb's crown jewel. He got the idea for the theater after a 1966 visit to San Francisco, where he witnessed the burgeoning counter-culture scene at Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium. "I said, 'Gee, this is really great. I wouldn't mind opening something like this in Detroit," Gibb said, and he found the building -- built in 1928 at 8952 Grand River Blvd. on Detroit's west side and now part of the National Register of Historical Places -- and made it one of the country's premiere rock venues during its six-year run. The Grande was defined by extravagant light shows and psychedelic poster art and hosted landmark and often mixed-genre concerts by Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, Pink Floyd, B.B. King and dozens of others. It was also home to local heroes such as the MC5, the Stooges, the Rationals, Savage Grace and more.

Roger Daltrey of the Who -- which gave the rock opera "Tommy" its U.S. premiere on May 9, 1969 at the venue -- noted that the Grande "was one of THOSE places, the ones you HAD to play when you came to America. If you played there it was a sign that you were important. Sam Andrew of Big Brother & the Holding Company, meanwhile, recalled the Grande as "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."

Despite the peace and love aesthetic of the times, Gibb -- who operated concert promotion companies such as Gemini Productions, Russ Gibb Enterprise and Big Sur Enterprises -- acknowledged that he started the Grande "to make a buck. I'm on old capitalist." He and his compatriots kept the Grande rockin' until the 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."

Gibb went on to his career as an educator and, until 2016, maintained an active web site that included an outspoken blog called At Random. His legacy with the Grande and "Paul is Dead," meanwhile have been continuously celebrated over the decades. "I'm always amazed at the interest," he said. "I get calls from all over, interviews. The one thing that keeps coming up is people say, 'Thank you. You did so much.' It wasn't just me...but I'm happy we had some kind of impact here."

Memorial plans for Gibb have not yet been announced.

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