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Detroit ‘godfather’ of music Harry Balk dies

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Harry Balk, a tough-talking, sharp-dressed record man from the glory days of Detroit music in the 1950s and 60s (and 70s), died Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, after a brief illness. He was 91.

“He was feisty up until the last few days, fortunately,” said his friend, producer Joel Martin of 54 Sound in Ferndale.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to call Balk one of the most seminal figures in Detroit music in the last 50 years. He discovered such diverse talents as Little Willie John in the 50s, and Rare Earth and singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez in the 60s.

He produced west Michigan’s Del Shannon (“Runaway”), and he and partner Irving Michanek ran Twirl Records, Shannon’s record company, out of Detroit.

Later in the 60s Berry Gordy, who always had a nose for talent, hired Balk to work for him at Motown, where he helped shepherd Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” through production in 1971.

Balk grew up in Detroit’s 12th Street neighborhood. Tall and suave-looking, with a pencil mustache, he was called “Cisco” by his friends, producer Dave Usher remembered.

His uncle let him run one of his movie theaters in Detroit, and to drum up business, Balk would put on talent shows in between the movies. It was there that he encountered Little Willie John, a slight 14-year-old with a big, bluesy voice. Balk decided on the spot to go into the music business.

“He was such an exciting performer,” Balk said of John, “You’d have to hang yourself, to follow him.”

He managed John as the singer recorded hit songs (“Fever”) for King Records, and kept in touch with his family even after he had to stop managing John, weary of late-night phone calls from the gifted but troubled singer asking for help or sometimes, bail money.

“He was the most talented singer I ever heard, but he shortened my life,” Balk said.

Working out of an office on Alexandrine, then Detroit’s “Record Row,” Balk also oversaw the careers of other regional acts that hit nationally; the white soul group the Shades of Blue (“Oh How Happy”) and Johnny and the Hurricanes (“Red River Rock”).

When he worked for Motown, Balk started the company’s Rare Earth label, which actively recruited rock bands to what had always been an R&B label.

Balk’s genius for spotting talent was peerless. In 1966, he signed Rodriguez, a mainstay of the Wayne State bar scene, to a five-year songwriting contract.

Clarence Avant signed Rodriguez to Los Angeles’ Sussex Records in the early 70s, but credited his songs under a false name, Balk charged in a lawsuit in federal court, in 2014.

Rodriguez, who was the subject of the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” allegedly never received royalties due him. The lawsuit has not yet been resolved.

Services for Balk are at 2 p.m. Monday at the Hebrew Memorial Chapel, 26640 Greenfield Rd, Oak Park.