Brian McCollum Detroit Free Press
Published 11:32 PM EDT Apr 30, 2019
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 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 touring acts 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 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, 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.”
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or [email protected]
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