Russ Gibb

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The owner of the famed Grande Ballroom, Russ Gibb was among the seminal figures behind the rise of the Detroit music scene of the 1960s -- a respected schoolteacher as well as a pioneering radio personality,…
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The owner of the famed Grande Ballroom, Russ Gibb was among the seminal figures behind the rise of the Detroit music scene of the 1960s -- a respected schoolteacher as well as a pioneering radio personality, he was also notorious for launching the infamous "Paul Is Dead" conspiracy which continues to capture the imaginations of Beatles fans to this day. Gibb was born in Dearborn, MI in 1941, the only son of Scottish natives just four years removed from their arrival in the U.S.; there he attended school alongside Jim Dunbar, himself later to become a longtime staple of San Francisco radio. As a teen, Gibb often traveled to New York's Greenwich Village, fascinated by the bohemian subculture blossoming in the wake of World War II; from there he graduated from Michigan State University in 1953, earning a degree in educational radio and television administration. In time he landed a teaching job in the Howell area, also working weekends as a floor manager at WWJ-TV.

Gibb's introduction to the emerging rock & roll scene came when he agreed to host a dance for his students when the school refused; after renting out a hall, he hired a DJ who brought along the legendary Detroit TV comedian Soupy Sales, and the result was a huge success which earned Gibb some $160, roughly equivalent to his monthly teaching income. He soon began hosting regular dances at a club named the Pink Pussycat, and also deejayed at stations WKMH and WKNR; additionally, Gibb returned to Dearborn to teach English and social studies. In 1966 he visited Dunbar in San Francisco; there Gibb attended a Byrds performance at Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium, and was blown away by the psychedelic culture he encountered. Seeking to re-create the experience in Detroit, he pursued building owner Gabe Glanz to let him begin promoting rock shows at an old big-band ballroom located at 8592 Grand River Avenue; a deal was struck, and the Grande was born.

Gibb soon teamed with the local underground writer and all-around rabble-rouser John Sinclair, who'd begun managing a local band dubbed the MC5; the group was soon booked to play the Grande's opening night. According to legend, Gibb was visiting MC5 frontman Rob Tyner's home when he asked the singer if he knew of any graphic artists to design posters for the event; seated at Tyner's kitchen table was Gary Grimshaw, who went on to create many of the most famous images connected to the Grande on his way to emerging as one of the most influential poster artists of the era. The Grande Ballroom opened on October 6, 1966; just 60-odd people were in the audience that first night, but within weeks, concerts were regularly drawing crowds in the thousands to witness performances by the likes of the Who, Janis Joplin, and Cream. Gibb --who was nicknamed "Uncle Russ" by concertgoers -- also co-founded Creem magazine, one of the most influential rock journals of its period.

Gibb additionally continued his teaching career as well as his broadcasting pursuits -- in 1966, he began hosting Nightcall, the nation's first coast-to-coast call-in talk show. His most legendary moment, however, arrived on October 12, 1969; while deejaying at WKNR, he received a phone call instructing him that backwards playback of certain Beatles songs, along with a series of "clues" scattered across their record covers, indicated that Paul McCartney was dead. Gibb broadcast the rumor on his radio show and immediately triggered an uproar among the group's fans, who poured over their record collections seeking further cryptic confirmation of their hero's seeming demise. By this time, Gibb was growing increasingly disenchanted with concert promotion, however, and he ultimately sold his business, relocating to London and staying at the homes of Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger.

Upon returning to the U.S., Gibb landed in Los Angeles, where he briefly worked in the record industry before going back to Dearborn to resume his teaching. His return to southeast Michigan brought with it a renewed interest in producing live concerts, and in the summer of 1970, Gibb mounted the Goose Lake Pop Festival, a Woodstock-inspired event which drew crowds of over 250,000. The increasing commercialization of the music business again forced him out of concert production, however, and -- inspired by the state-of-the-art video system he saw installed at Jagger's London home -- he instead turned his attention to the developing medium of cable television. After securing franchise rights for Dearborn and nearby Wayne during the early '70s, Gibb was a millionaire by the following decade when both areas were wired for cable; television and mass communications also became the primary focus of his continuing teaching career.

In the meantime, Gibb additionally turned to politics, in 1975 flying to Washington D.C. to join the U.S. Bicentennial Commission organized by then-Secretary of the Navy John Warner. Hired to coordinate youth activities for the upcoming Bicentennial celebration, Gibb additionally tested educational programs at a Pennsylvania pilot school; as his two-year tenure with the commission drew to a close, he also rode his motorcycle cross-country, speaking to citizens from all walks of life. Gibb returned to teaching at Dearborn High in 1977, spending some of his own money to develop one of the nation's most renowned video instruction curriculums; in 1985, Back Porch Video, the local series he produced with his students, won a Cable ACE award. Two years earlier, he'd also begun hosting his own series, Russ Gibb at Random, and in 1988 returned to radio to host WCSX's Rock Chronicles.