Influential Windsor radio legend Rosalie Trombley dead at 82

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

Legendary CKLW-AM music director Rosalie Trombley, the “girl with the golden ears” whom Bob Seger immortalized in song as one of the few female record executives in the 1960s, died Tuesday, her family announced in a release.

No cause of death was released, but Trombley, 82, had been ailing and out of the public eye for some time.

“She was absolutely the most important person in Detroit in the music business, in that time,” said Tom Weschler, a former road manager for Seger and concert photographer. “J. P. McCarthy was big, Purtan was big, but in terms of getting music played, Rosalie was bigger.”

Rosalie Trombley

Born in Leamington, Ontario, in 1938, she grew up listening to the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll on CKLW.

In 1963, she got a job working the switchboard at the Windsor radio station, typical of the kind of jobs women had to take in the 1960’s.

 By 1968, Rosalie, a single mother of three, was CKLW’s music librarian. In that job she was responsible for reading the trades and researching to see what the station might want to play. She was so adept at it, she was almost immediately promoted to her boss’ job as music director.

Rosalie never took credit personally, but acts who give her credit for breaking them include Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Gordon Lightfoot, Aerosmith, the Guess Who (and later, Bachman-Turner-Overdrive). Elton John credits her for forcing his record company to release “Benny and the Jets” as a single.

Her most important research tool was the phone. She had a posse of Detroit R&B disc jockeys and music directors on speed dial, and also kept up with what was being played in the Detroit clubs.

She had such a good ear for what Detroit R&B stations were playing, that acts such as the Parliaments (later, Parliament-Funkadelic) and the Detroit Emeralds hit bigger than they would have, once CKLW was beaming their records out on its enormous 50,000 watt signal, heard in some 38 states, with a weekly cumulative audience in North America of over 3 million listeners.

“She could hear a hit a mile away,” said her son, Tim Trombley, when he accepted the Walt Grealis Achievement Award on her behalf at Canada’s 2016 Juno Awards. He continued: “Most major market stations played it safe and only played the proven national hits. Mom was different. She used her golden ears and instincts to identify, take chances and lead the way for an array of then-unproven artists.”

Producer Bob Ezrin always credited Trombley for hearing “I’m Eighteen” by Alice Cooper as a hit, and playing it before anyone did. It was Cooper’s breakthrough hit.

Not all the records Trombley helped break would be considered cool today. “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” by Wayne Newton and “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone also hit big thanks in part to heavy CKLW airplay. But at the end of the day, all Trombley cared about was, did the listening audience like it and want to hear it?

Every Thursday, Detroit-based record promo reps would nervously make the trip across the river to Windsor to pay homage to the radio queen, and beg for her consideration of their musical wares. As popular as she was, Trombley was famously blunt in her assessments of a record’s worth.

Carl Galeana, who was a rep for TK Records out of Miami, recalled bringing her the Anita Ward disco record “Ring My Bell” for consideration.

“Rosalie listened to 39 seconds, and then threw it in the garbage can!” Yes, the actual trash can. After that, a crushed Galleana threw all 50 copies of “Ring My Bell” into his own trash, figuring that if Rosalie wouldn’t play it, nobody would.

“A week later, she called me to tell me it was exploding in the clubs, and can I bring her a few copies.” The panicked record rep had to call Miami to have a box of records put on a passenger plane and flown to Detroit, in those pre-FedEx days.

It was all part of the game. She may not like a record, but if she was wrong, she’d add it. “She was a genius researcher!” Galeana enthused. “She was one of my favorite people in radio!”

Weschler remembered going with Seger across the river for lunch one Thursday with Rosalie and her boss, program director Les Garland, to present her with a gold record for some Seger hit.

“This was promotion day,” Weschler said. “We went out to lunch, me, Bob, Les Garland, to the Hacienda, right across from CKLW. We had a really good lunch all talking about music, and so excited. We were so excited, that we stayed for dinner! She skipped out on all the other promotion guys waiting for her, to pitch their records. Rosalie said, ‘Weschler, they’re going to kill you. They’re all waiting to see me.’”

Despite their friendship, Trombley was famously dismissive of Seger’s song “Rosalie,” in which he sang of her admiringly. “She knows music,” calling her “everybody’s favorite little record girl.” Seger commented for the Juno Awards: “I just wanted to tell the world how much she meant to me … I owe her a lot and she sure earned it.”

But Trombley flatly refused to play “Rosalie,” feeling that it set a bad precedent of an artist trying to impress her in song.  

She broke “Bennie and the Jets” for Elton John, but had to convince him and MCA, his record company, to release it as a single. “Bennie and the Jets” was an album cut on the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album when Trombley noticed that Detroit’s WJLB had been playing it, and that it was popular with Black listeners. They were buying the album, just to get the song. She pressed MCA to release it as a single, and after a baffled Elton John called her to ask why, she argued that he could expand his audience and gain more Black fans if they did. She was right.

In 2016, at Canada’s Juno Awards, Trombley was presented with the Walt Grealis Achievement Award by Burton Cummings of the Guess Who. Trombley was not well enough to attend.  

“Without Rosalie I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you,” Cummings said, crediting her for playing “These Eyes” in 1969, and making it a hit throughout North America. “She played our records before there was a Canadian content ruling,” he added, referring to the rule that Canadian stations had to play a certain percentage of Canadian content.

“She played ‘These Eyes’ and ‘Laughing’ because she believed in the songs,” Cummings added. “She was a wonderful woman.”

Something her son said at the Junos sums up her philosophy. “If she could be here, she would say homogenization shouldn’t be applied to music or the cultural arts,” Trombley said. “Be brave and be strong, use your ears and take chances. Oftentimes the rewards outweigh the risks, and help to move the cultural needle forward.”

A memorial service for Rosalie will be held at a later date.