Joe Louis Arena handled concerts like a champ

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

When an on-top-of-the-world Prince kicked off his “Purple Rain” tour in 1984, he did it with an epic seven-night run at Joe Louis Arena.

Before The Palace of Auburn Hills opened in 1988, Joe Louis Arena was the largest concert venue in Michigan. Bob Seger performed sold-out shows there in 1987.

The Minneapolis native was no stranger to the Motor City, and he had headlined The Joe numerous times before, beginning with a December 1980 concert just a year after the riverside arena swung open its doors.

But that “Purple Rain” run solidified the Purple One’s relationship with Detroit, as well as Joe Louis Arena’s reputation as a storied rock hall.

Today, that story is winding down. With Little Caesars Arena opening up in September about a mile and a half up Cass Avenue, The Joe’s days are numbered. Dance-pop act the Chainsmokers and pop-soul throwbacks Hall & Oates have concerts on the books in April and May, and there is the possibility of more concerts swinging through in the summertime. But soon the booming sounds that once rang through the home of the Red Wings will be just an echo.

Before The Palace of Auburn Hills opened in 1988, Joe Louis Arena was the largest concert venue in Michigan. Bob Seger performed sold-out shows there in 1987.

But what sounds those were! Billy Joel in 1980. Parliament-Funkadelic in 1981. Frank Sinatra in 1982. All the way up through the Black Keys in 2014, the Eagles in 2015 and Kanye West in 2016.

The Joe hosted hundreds of concerts over the years: Rock shows, rap shows, country shows, R&B shows. To comb through its archives is to see a snapshot of nearly 40 years of popular music: Cheap Trick and Fleetwood Mac in 1980, MC Hammer and New Kids on the Block in 1990, Eminem and Limp Bizkit in 2000, Lady Gaga and Usher in 2010.

Rush played the first concert at The Joe in February 1980 in support of its “Permanent Waves” album, released just a month prior. From there, the floodgates were opened, and the Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt, Alice Cooper, Elton John, the Commodores, Yes, Paul Simon, Teddy Pendergrass, Black Sabbath and yes, Prince, all played there in the months that followed.

Decades after Rush opened The Joe’s run of concerts, it hosts stars like Lady Gaga.

Aretha Franklin played The Joe. AC/DC rocked The Joe. Metallica warmed up at The Joe (for Ozzy Osbourne in April 1986) and came back 23 years later and headlined The Joe (in January 2009). Cher had the gall to perform a “farewell” show at The Joe in 2003, and return 11 years later for another concert.

N.W.A. nearly caused a riot at The Joe in 1989 when the group performed its controversial “(Expletive) the Police” after being warned not to, in a scene that was dramatized in the group’s biopic “Straight Outta Compton.” Eleven years later, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube returned to the scene of the crime on the “Up in Smoke” tour, and Dre faced static from the Detroit police once again, who shut down a video that was to air before his performance over issues with its violent content.

Madonna didn’t play The Joe in her early days, but she made up for it by swinging through on her last two tours, in 2012 and 2015. The Joe wasn’t around when Bob Seger was making his bones in Detroit, but he played a string of seven shows there in the winter of 1987, and returned there 20 years later in March 2007.

Seger was also on stage with Kid Rock in 2006, when Rock brought him out during his Super Bowl weekend celebrations, a way to show the world how we do it in Detroit. Rock also played the building on back-to-back nights in 2002, and brought his “Rock and Roll Jesus” tour to the epicenter of Hockeytown in February 2008.

Big Sean’s November 2015 show will go down in Detroit history.

Big Sean scored a legendary Detroit moment when he pulled Eminem up on stage at the close of his November 2015 concert, when along with Danny Brown, Royce da 5’9”, Dej Loaf and Trick Trick they performed the only live rendition of “Detroit vs. Everybody” that’s ever been done.

Alice Cooper played The Joe 11 times over the years, including Halloween shows in 1986 and 1987 and a New Year’s Eve show on Dec. 31, 1996.

For the Detroit rocker, The Joe was always a special place because of its namesake.

“When I was a little kid, my dad and I used to watch boxing in East Detroit,” Cooper recalls. “We would go sit in the room with a tiny black and white TV, and my uncles would all smoke cigarettes and drink Blatts. And we’d sit there in this smoke-filled room with White Castle hamburgers, and I would have Vernors ginger ale, and we’d watch Joe Louis fight.

“Joe Louis was a Detroit guy. And then you get downtown, and there’s this gigantic fist, and it’s dedicated to Joe Louis. Joe Louis had a lot to do with my childhood, so playing that building really felt like the real deal for me.”

For hundreds of thousands of Detroiters over the years, Joe Louis Arena was the real deal for them, too. The building may soon be reduced to rubble, but the memories of the concerts inside its concrete walls remain.

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