Bob Seger immortalized Rosalie Trombley in a song and now the Canadian broadcasting legend will be immortalized by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences at the 45th annual Juno Awards. The 76-year-old will become the first woman to receive the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award since the award was created in 1984.
The 1973 song, “Rosalie,” also covered by Thin Lizzy, says it all:
“She knows music / I know music too, you see / She’s got the power / Good ol’ teen queen, Rosalie / Rosalie, Rosalie. She’s got the plastic / That comes from all the corners corners of the world / So fantastic / She’s everybody’s favorite little record girl.”
The award, to be presented at the Juno Awards gala dinner April 2 in Calgary, recognizes individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry, though Trombley’s legacy reaches far beyond Canada’s borders. Trombley, who was music director at The Big 8 — CKLW-AM Windsor from 1967 to 1984 — is credited with breaking Canadian artists in America, adding such songs as Gordon Lightfoot‘s “If You Could Read My Mind,” the Guess Who‘s “These Eyes,” Paul Anka‘s “You’re Having My Baby,” Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business,” and Burton Cummings‘ “Stand Tall.”
When CKLW changed formats to an older demo in 1984, she remained as music director until 1987, moving on to work at Hot AC station WLTI-FM in Detroit for a couple of years before heading to Toronto to take a position at oldies station Key 590. Trombley, who retired in Windsor, became one of the first inductees of the Motor City Music Awards, receiving a Lifetime Achievement recognition in 1992. Canadian Music Week also named The Rosalie Award after her, which is presented annually at the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards to women who have blazed a trail in radio. She received the first, in 2005.
Trombley has three children, two of whom followed her into the music business. Diane started at Virgin Records and is now in broadcast sales, and Tim was vp of talent acquisition and artist development at EMI Music Canada, where he worked for 23 years. Todd is not in the industry now, but picked up sales skills working at CKLW’s sales office in Detroit.
Tim, now director of entertainment at Caesars Windsor, will accept the award on his mother’s behalf and talked to Billboard about his mother’s legacy.
Your mother has health issues now. Does she understand the award?
She does. Yeah, she’s dealing with some serious health issues. She’s thrilled. She feels very honored, very grateful for the recognition. She loved what she did, but she never looked at it in any kind of grand way. It was just what she had to do to raise her three kids and it just happened to be something that she really enjoyed doing.
What was CKLW like when she started? Were you born yet?
Yeah, I was. The station, in the ’60s, was part of the RKO General chain, which was in the United States. They had a number of major market radio and TV stations, and their Detroit stations happened to be situated in Windsor. In the mid-’60s there was a format, called “the Boss,” that was created by this legendary radio programmer named Bill Drake. CKLW took the Boss radio format and adapted it to suit the Detroit market. It became known as CKLW, “The Big 8,” sometime in the later ’60s — that was when Mom became music director. It was this very high-powered, high-energy station with this tremendous signal… you could hear the station all across the midwest. Urban legend has it that you could hear the station in 23 states and 4 Canadian provinces, so it had a huge reach.
When did you realize your Mom’s importance and legacy?
I’m the oldest of three and it became apparent to me right around 1970, 1971, where we would go down to the station on occasion and we got a sense the importance and excitement — and, of course, I started going to concerts at a very young age — and we got to see the inner workings of the business. You knew your Mom had a really cool job.
What are some of Rosalie’s favorite memories?
She would probably tell you Bob Seger. My mom and Bob have always had a real connection. Bob, of course, immortalized her with the song ‘Rosalie,’ but she just really felt connected to Bob’s music from the very beginning, long before he broke on a national level. He was a regional star and my mother always really supported him and, in the end, was a catalyst to him breaking on a national level. He would come over to the station and hang out and go to dinner with my Mom and the program director.
So that’s one, and certainly Burton Cummings and The Guess Who. She wasn’t promoted specifically on “These Eyes” — she wasn’t promoted on the single by RCA on the States; she was promoted on the single by RCA in Toronto; the band didn’t have a US deal. She got sent the record by RCA Canada, heard it and instantly, first listen, thought that song was a smash — this was before Canadian Content [when the 30 percent requirement for AM radio was implemented in January, 1971] — and put it on the air. The phones blew up. She got a call from RCA in New York the following week — they wanted to know what was happening and she basically told them, ‘This song is a hit and you need to put this out in the States. I’m getting calls from record retailers in Detroit that people are coming in looking for the single and it’s not there. So if you want to sell some records, you better get this band put out in the States very quickly; it’s looking and feeling like a major hit.’ So that’s always been a real point of pride for Mom through the years. She’s run into [Guess Who members] Burton [Cummings] and Randy [Bachman] on occasion — they treat her with tremendous respect and reverence.
And she did the same for Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” insisting that should be a single?
Yes. That was never going to be a single and one of the urban stations in Detroit started playing it, just as an album cut, and my mother picked this up, again on her weekly record sales research that she would do — that’s a whole side topic, how she pioneered doing radio sales tracking — but in any case, when she would call some of the inner city urban music accounts, they would say they were getting people coming in looking for this song ‘Bennie and the Jets.’ And so she found out that one of the urban stations in Detroit was playing it, and she knew the program director there and called up this fellow Donnie Simpson and got the story on the record. She started playing it and the same thing happened. The phones blew up and she let MCA, now Universal, know the following week what had happened over the weekend and, to her ears, it could really reach an urban audience, and if they were smart they would make it the next single.
So, literally within a couple of days, she had a call from Elton John himself, wanting to know why she thought it should be a single and she told him, ‘I think the song’s a hit; our listeners think the song’s a hit; here’s what happened at urban radio in Detroit; it’s happening for us now; if you want to reach a black audience, you really should consider making this your next single,’ and he did and the rest is history. It was one of his biggest hits ever.
Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards has radio award named after her for women in broadcasting. Are her accomplishments at that time even more significant because she is woman?
Absolutely. When she went in to that position there were no women of influence and power in broadcasting. It was very much a male-dominated industry. She was given this opportunity because one of the program directors recognized her talent. She was a pioneer. It’s very apropos that she is the first woman to be given the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award. It’s very appropriate that Mom is the first because in so many ways she truly was a pioneer and a role model for woman in the music industry, in broadcasting and on the label side. There were a number of promotion people that started out locally in Detroit that went on to prominent national positions in LA and New York. Mom did a lot of mentoring for people in the industry.
You will be accepting the award in Calgary on her behalf. What does it mean to you personally that she’s receiving this?
It’s an incredible honor for Mom to be recognized after all these years. It’s very meaningful that all the years later that the legend of her and that station continues to be as strong as it was 10 years ago. If anything, her legacy and the legacy of that station seems to be even stronger now than it was 20 years ago and that’s a testament to just how talented my Mom was and how special that radio station was to so many people.