It was 50 years ago today … Russ remembers how the Beatles, rock ’n’ roll changed music and culture

Photo by Sue Suchyta
“Louder Than Love – the Grande Ballroom Story” documentary (2012) tells how schoolteacher Russ Gibb created a dance hall for teens in 1966 that booked many cutting edge rock ’n’ roll groups of the day, including The Who, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, MC5, Alice Cooper and The Stooges.

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Russ Gibb with one of his beloved Labrador retrievers in an undated chalk rendering commissioned for him by the late Alberta Muirhead.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – With Feb. 9 marking the 50th anniversary of The Beatles “Ed Sullivan Show” debut, former concert promoter and disc jockey Russ Gibb remembers how rock ’n’ roll icons changed American music and culture.

Dearborn resident Gibb, remembered locally for his cable show “Back Porch Video” and for teaching video and media production for more than 20 years at Dearborn High School, was also a DJ on WKNR-FM (Keener 13) and a venue music owner and manager, beginning with Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, during the late ’60s and early ’70s.

While the genesis of rock ’n’ roll goes back several more decades, Gibb said the country was ready for a change musically 50 years ago when the British invasion began.
He said The Beatles played an important role musically because they changed as audiences matured and became more sophisticated.

“At first they were a teeny-bop group,” Gibb said. “But they grew with the kids as they grew older and wanted a little more sophistication to their music, instead of the la-dee-dah (Justin) Beiber-type music.

“They wanted more substance,” Gibb said. “Their audience grew with them and they moved through and they grew up and they became more of a social influence, particularly with John (Lennon) being shot and that tragedy.”

He said he remembers watching “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which was very popular and the main Sunday show, many times with his parents. He said The Beatles’ appearance on the show was “pretty amazing.”

“First of all, it was coming from New York City, and that was far away in those days,” Gibb said. “It wasn’t as though it was right next door, even though we did have jet planes and things like that. It still was a little different.”

During the British music invasion, when he had concert venues to book, Gibb said he traveled to London many times, and talked to industry insiders, which is how he discovered the role he played in bringing British bands to Detroit.

He said he learned that the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, the first venue he partially owned and operated, was very popular with British bands because of its excellent acoustics. Gibb said he found out later that it had horsehair mixed into the plaster, which produced the venue’s exceptional acoustics.

“The sound was great in the Grande because the original builder had done what they did at Orchestra Hall,” Gibb said. “The horsehair in the plaster allowed a vibration that was incredible and they loved the sound. The British people were talking in London about the great place they heard to play music in Detroit, and the audiences were great.”

While the Grande’s acoustics may have influenced Pete Townsend and The Who to perform the North American premiere of “Tommy” there, Gibb said he knew Townsend well and visited him when he was in London.

Gibb said he also knew Tom Wright, an American living in London, a schoolmate of Townsend who became a road manager for The Who. Gibb later offered Wright a job managing the Grande.

Working for Gibb, Wright brought many British bands to the Grande.

“Tom was a genius,” Gibb said. “When he came over here he was so impressed by the music and things going on in Detroit that he asked me for a job.”

“So The Who and many famous rock ’n’ roll bands wanted to play the Grande,” Gibb said. “It was the venue to play in Detroit. And I got very lucky and made a few bucks with that club.”

He said he operated other clubs as well during that era.

“I was a very lucky guy,” Gibb said.

Music-based social change continued as music became much more accessible to people, he said.

“After a little while they had these boom boxes they were carrying around, and then they got the little tiny iPods and so music became everyday, everywhere when you wanted it,” Gibb said. “And it’s that way today.”

He said while music is a big business, they have suffered terribly with the advent of personal computers.

“Kids can share music and whip it around. They don’t have to buy it,” Gibb said. “And it’s been a great problem for the industry.

“But in a way they deserve it, because before that, kids would tell me they love this group, it’s the best group, and I would say, ‘How many groups have you heard?’” Gibb said. “And they mostly had heard 15 or 20 groups.”

He said each record company would take three or four groups and promote them, leaving hundreds of other groups that they never heard.

“Today with (the computer), anybody can be on and everybody can hear you so it’s a very generic market,” Gibb said.