Flash mob honors music promoter Russ Gibb

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — The MC5, the seminal 1960s rock band formed in Lincoln Park in 1964, boomed out from a speaker at the corner of Grand River and Beverly Court once again.

The rollicking sound and a gathering of familiar faces made it feel a bit like 50 years ago.

Detroiters of a certain age who assembled on the corner Sunday said they could almost see the late Russ Gibb sitting upstairs in his raffish office in the Grande Ballroom, across the street.

Gibb, a teacher, entrepreneur and disc jockey prominent in the city during the era died Tuesday at 87.

“He encompasses the entire Grande Ballroom experience, and we’re proud that he was our uncle, you know, of our father, our family member,” said David Dillingham of West Bloomfield, referring to Gibb's nickname as everybody's "Uncle Russ."

“Just absolutely revered and respected. It was such a good foundation for the music industry.”

Now an abandoned shell with small trees growing from the roof, the Grande was the venue for much of what was hip and happening during a golden age of classic 1960s rock-and-roll, in a city that provided a considerable boost for the hard-driving off-shoot of rhythm and blues.

A group photo is taken as people gather to celebrate the life of Russ Gibb outside the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on Sunday.

Gibb received an honorary remembrance Sunday in the form of a flash mob that gathered outside of the Grande.

The somewhat somber mood of the group perked up considerably with the clanging chords from of the guitars of Fred "Sonic" Smith and Wayne Kramer of the MC5, and their guttural, growling vocals, blaring from the speakers hooked up to a generator hauled out from the trunk of a car to sit on the pavement of Beverly Court.

About 70 people recalled the Gibb’s sway, the events of those heady days and, in the words of one sage, “some of the crazy stuff we did when we were kids.”

In 1966, Gibb purchased the Grande Ballroom, a 1920s and 1930s dance hall, with a prime, hardwood floor upstairs, that once provided a hangout for the city’s infamous band of underworld bootleggers and racketeers, the Purple Gang.

Gibb saw the need for the “new generation,” as the baby boom youth of the 1960s were sometimes called, to have a hangout of their own, complete with their new music, their increasingly psychedelic thoughts and their counter-culture.

He helped turn the Grande into a Goliathan presence on “the scene” in Detroit from the late 1960s to the early 1970s.

It was the venue for aspiring groups like the MC5, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Frijid Pink, Alice Cooper, Savage Grace, Ted Nugent, James Gang, SRC, the J. Geils Band and the Amboy Dukes.

They also included already prominent rock stars of the day who have become legend, like Led Zeppelin, Cream, B.B. King, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd and The Who.

Gibb also performed as a disc jockey on WKNR-AM and taught at Dearborn High School.

Those gathered talked about the late, late nights and bringing major recording artists of the day from the Grande back to their homes in Detroit to party until past dawn, including performers like the guitarists Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, the drummer Ginger Baker, the bassist Jack Bruce and the vocalist Joe Cocker.

And, hey, so what if Iggy Pop took the stage at the Grande one night, nude? Nobody seemed to mind, too much. None of it, even now, seems like it would have been possible without the indomitable Gibb.

Some of those gathered distributed small containers of soap bubble, to symbolically send their thoughts aloft to Gibb.

Linda Flynn, 62, of Taylo, right, in sunglasses, blows bubbles as friends and supporters gather to celebrate the life of Russ Gibb.

“This is mostly a gathering of people who had experiences here as children, literally, before they were actually adults,” said Carl Lundgren of Detroit, an artist who worked for Gibb.

“They came here, they snuck out of their mom’s house and got away with it; said they were going to the library and ended up here.

“I worked for the Grande. I worked for Russ Gibb,” Lundgren said. “I did posters for him for three years, '67, ’68 and ’69.”

The posters and post cards of artists who worked for Gibb were omnipresent in the city, at the time. Colorful, complex, seemingly nearly random psychedelic compositions, they still form some of the visual memories of the era for its denizens.

One of Lundgren’s posters, which used an image of the actress Vanessa Redgrave to tout a coming performance of the James Cotton Blue Band, recently sold for $10,000 in an art auction.

“To me, he was my boss. He paid me great. He let me do anything. And he took me on his motorcycle once to Rochester, Michigan, and it scared the daylights out of me.

“But, other than that, he was a businessman,” Lundgren said.

Russ Gibb poses outside the Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 1993.

The filmmaker Tony D’Annunzio of Lake Orion made “Louder than Love: The Story of the Grande Ballroom,” which is available through Amazon and PBS, and which has been broadcast on PBS and will be available through Netflix soon.

“I met Russ through the making of the film,” D’Annunzio said. “The Grande was just a chapter in Russ’s life. He touched people in many different ways.

“He kind of brought me into his friendship circle and he reached out to a lot of people for me to interview who probably wouldn’t be in the film if it was not for him.

“He was a wonderful man, a friend and a mentor.”