If Russ Gibb had only been responsible for spreading the rumor about Paul McCartney’s fictional death in 1969, he would still be immortalized in rock n’ roll history.
But Gibb did far more than that.
As the owner of the Grande Ballroom in Detroit — one of the key theaters on the early U.S. rock n’ roll circuit during the late ’60s and early ’70s — Gibb promoted hundreds of concerts by the likes of the Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa and many more, as well as hometown heroes such as the MC5, the Stooges and more. Crusty and sharp-witted, he went on to be an acclaimed media arts teacher and an early adapter of local access cable television, which he used as an educational and promotional tool.
Gibb — known as “Uncle Russ” to a legion of concertgoers and students — died on Tuesday (April 30) at 87 in Garden City, Mich., after years of declining health.
“He was one of a kind,” Wayne Kramer of the MC5 — the house band at the Grande — tweeted late Tuesday night (his own birthday) as news of Gibb’s death began to spread.
“When nobody else would book us, Uncle Russ would,” Alice Cooper said. “He gave the Alice Cooper group an early footing in Detroit. Not only was he at the Grande, but he was everywhere. Everybody knew him, he was a total Detroit rocker. He was as much a part of the Detroit rock scene as the MC5 or The Stooges or Alice Cooper.”
“The man was a true visionary,” added Tony D’Annunzio, director of the Emmy Award-winning 2012 documentary Louder Than 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.”
Gibb was a teacher first, moving into music by working part-time at WKNR in Dearborn, Mich., 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shift at Detroit’s WKNR when Gibb took a call from a listener claiming that the Beatles bassist had died in 1966 and been replaced by a cosmetically altered look-alike.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 the station’s owner 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 a while, it seemed like it might really be true.”
McCartney called the rumor “bloody stupid” when Life magazine reporters found him in Scotland shortly after, but in 2009 he told David Letterman that, “I just laughed it off but it was a little strange because people did start looking at me like…’Is it him or a very good double?'”
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 counterculture 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. 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 premier rock venues during its six-year run. The Grande was defined by extravagant light shows — including the first strobe light in the U.S., Gibb claimed — and psychedelic poster art as well as often mixed-genre bills. Roger Daltrey of the Who — which gave the rock opera Tommy its U.S. premiere on May 9, 1969 at the Grande — noted that the venue “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.”
“He was a true pioneer, one of the original founding fathers of the nationwide rock concert circuit,” said Toby Mamis of Alive Enterprises, which handles Alice Cooper. “Every city had that one guy who pioneered the rock concert culture.”
Though his name is inextricably linked to the Grande, Gibb always hastened to remind admirers that “It wasn’t a one-man routine — I just happened to be the guy that signed the lease. There were a lot of people involved.” And Gibb, who operated a number of promotion and production companies, put to rest any notion of the Grande as part of the peace and love aesthetic of the times. “I wanted to make a buck,” he said. “I’m on old capitalist.” He closed the Grande during 1972, after a six-year run, over financial concerts and when national 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 website 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.