How Russ Gibb (almost) killed Paul McCartney
Russ Gibb was a bundle of contradictions that not only made sense, but in fact, were absolutely essential in forming the character of one of the Detroit music scene’s most influential figures.
He was the middle-class son of Detroit who lived in the top floor of his parents' modest Dearborn bungalow when he wasn’t running the notorious Grande Ballroom, where Detroiters were introduced to Janis Joplin and other avatars of '60s cool.
He sparked fear in the hearts of the "straight" people he encountered, with his long hair, platform shoes and hippie couture, but he was at heart a businessman, and a conservative.
After years of failing health, Gibb’s heart gave out Tuesday at Garden City Hospital. He was 87.
Born in 1931, he was a schoolteacher by trade, but once Gibb discovered that he made more money in one night as a disc jockey or running a sock hop than in several weeks at school, he split into two entities: "Uncle Russ," the ferocious broadcaster and Pied Piper of youth, in direct opposition to the conservative schoolteacher who still lived with his parents.
By 1966 it was a natural progression, when he came back from San Francisco, intrigued by the first murmurings of psychedelia and the newly-opened Fillmore, to open a rock club in a crumbling Detroit ballroom. He was 35, but looked younger—especially dressed in his Haight-Ashbury finery. Thus was born Uncle Russ, the teenager’s friend.
"He really got the jump," said Leo Early, author of "The Grande Ballroom: Detroit's Rock 'n' Roll Palace."
"Russ saw that kids were growing their hair longer, dressing up—nowadays you’d call them early adopters. He saw the Fillmore and decided to bring it back here. That was the go-getter in him, the entrepreneur. He was well ahead of anything going on in Boston or Philadelphia. He opened the Grande before there was a Fillmore East."
Every night he went home to his parents' house, where he would play host to the inevitable cadres of visiting "Grande kids," as his mother brought sandwiches up to his room.
Dan Carlisle, one of the Air Aces from Detroit’s premier underground station WABX, got to know Gibb as a competitor on the radio dial—Gibb was on WKNR-FM, which was trying hard to earn the sort of underground cred WABX flaunted. But Gibb was always generous about helping ABX air personalities get interviews with artists appearing at the Grande.
"There wasn't much conversation between the groups, but he contacted me and we met and we talked about music," Carlisle said. "He liked the kind of music I played, and when I left ABX he got involved in getting me over on Keener. He didn’t care if ABX was successful. He didn't have that kind of (competitive) thing going on in his head."
What was quintessentially Detroit about Gibb was that, like the ABX jocks, he didn't present himself as a hipster, or part of any rock elite.
At the Grande, the musicians would have to walk through the audience — the "hoi polloi" — to get to their dressing rooms at either side of the stage. If they didn’t like it — too bad.
"We were our audience," said Carlisle. "We were them and we did the same things they did. We liked cars and dressing up and playing rock and roll. Russ was a middle class kid. He didn't come from money—I saw his parents house."
Carlisle thinks the Grande Ballroom's reputation and place in music history often obscures an important aspect to Gibb — his talent as an air personality.
"He is very, very underappreciated as a radio personality, he was fantastic. And he did disguise it with that 'Uncle Russ on the radio,' thing. He had an uncanny ability on the air. I loved listening to him."
One thing Carlisle was complicit in was Gibb's infamous "Paul is Dead" schtick, which played out when both men worked at WKNR-FM in October 1969. Gibb took a caller who made the claim that the Beatles were covering up that McCartney had died.
"Russ said, 'let’s run with it,'" Carlisle said, laughing. The two would discuss the different clues pointing to the Beatle's demise on the air, gathering a huge audience every night.
Steve Schram, executive director and general manager of Michigan Media, which oversees Michigan Radio-WUOM, was one of those teenage listeners.
"Russ gave me his own copy of the 7-inch reel of the documentary, with all those phone calls he made to people like Eric Clapton across the ocean," Schram said, still marveling at his luck.
"That was when calls to England cost a couple nickels! He was just freestyling as he was dialing. But they were great showmen. And Russ played it straight!"
"We never said it was true," Carlisle said, laughing.
Within a couple of days, Russ had even smoked out Paul McCartney, who had to state publicly that he was alive.
Even LSD avatar Timothy Leary heard about the WKNR stunt, telling Carlisle "That was the best joke!" when he met him.
Schram was such a Gibb enthusiast that he taped him on the air at WKNR-FM on Sunday afternoons. Those tapes survive and can be heard online at keener13.com, a WKNR tribute site he and Scott Westerman launched.
"We have some stuff up there of him just musing," Schram recalled. "He would talk real low, kind of like Alan Almond (the former 'Pillow Talk' host) before he was popular. You always wondered if Russ was in another universe, or stoned or just tired from a bad night at the Grande. He was so entertaining that way, it was so captivating and unusual, even against the backdrop of progressive or album rock when it was just emerging. He really was quite a great communicator on the air."
It’s beyond ironic that Gibb was perceived as the king of the underground. "He looked like a hippie, but he wasn't," Carlisle said. "Every generation has their entrepreneurs, and he was one of them. In order to make it, he had to look like the people he wanted money from. So that's what he did. He was really very conservative as a person. For God’s sake, he was part of the Nixon administration."
It's somewhat obscure, after all these years, exactly who he worked for—Russ Gibb, international man of mystery—but he worked in Washington, D.C. during the latter stages of the Nixon era as a "youth ambassador," someone who could talk to the kids, as well as "the suits."
For Gibb, it was just another gig in a tantalizingly diverse career. When Carlisle asked him about it, he brushed it off, saying "Don't worry about it, it doesn't mean anything."
Gibb always went back to teaching, and he found a whole new audience of young people enthralled with his message when he taught media production at Dearborn High School. He was proud of his students who went on to work in broadcast and film, eagerly promoting their work to journalists.
He was known to invest in startups and new projects, partly to encourage young talent, but also to be in on the ground floor, just in case. He had invested money in Creem Magazine when it started in 1969 in the Cass Corridor. Later on, he invested in many new products, some invented by his students, which he happily promoted.
But he never gave up on broadcasting, having the energy to opine as a "redneck conservative commentator" in the 1980’s on country station WCXI while also doing a late night, free-form show on the pop station Tower 92.
At one point, deep into his career teaching media and broadcast production in Dearborn, he seemed to have wearied of discussing the '60s, his role in bringing the psychedelic era to Detroit and (almost) killing Paul McCartney.
But after he retired, suddenly Gibb was talking about it again.
He happily attended events commemorating the Grande Ballroom and took part in benefits for Detroit musicians who he had booked at the Grande.
When Schram and Westerman met with Gibb in Dearborn some years ago to get his insights on the keener13.com website they were starting, their breakfast extended to four hours.
"I'm going to miss him, but I'm glad he's out of pain," said Schram. "He always had something going on. He was always just a good spirit."
"I liked him and he was always just lovely to me," said Carlisle. "He always kept in touch, even if I didn't. I thought he was a good thing."
Susan Whitall is a veteran Detroit music journalist and author. Contact her at susanwhitall.com