Oct. 12 2016 10:53 AM

New book on Grande Ballroom explores Detroit’s lost music venue

In the late ‘60s, visitors entering the second floor of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom were greeted by waves of pulsating music and an electric light show. They handed a ticket to someone in a bathtub and entered a world of swirling colors and pot smoke. It was like entering a different universe.

Dearborn author Leo Early details this psychedelic journey in his new book, “The Grande Ballroom: Detroit’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Palace.”

The ballroom, known as simply “the Grande” to its regulars, operated at the corner of Grand River Avenue and Joy Road from late 1966 to 1972. The building, which now sits abandoned and deteriorating rapidly, opened in 1928 as a dance hall.

The Grande attracted some of the most important bands and artists of the era, including Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Chuck Berry, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd and Moby Grape. The headliners were often paired with local groups like Livonia Tool & Die Company and the Motor City Mutants or blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Its savvy promoter, Russ Gibb, also booked popular local bands like Ann Arbor-based groups Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and the Prime Movers.

Early’s interest in the Grande came about as a “confluence of interests.”

“I’ve been a musician my whole life, and my father was a history teacher in Detroit,” Early said. “The building kind of chose me.”

Early did most of his primary research in newspaper archives. But when he launched a website related to the project in 2004, things really took off.

“People began emailing and corresponding with me,” he said.

Early was able to connect with the venue's promoter, Russ Gibb. Known to friends as “Uncle Russ,” Gibb was a Dearborn-based high school teacher and music promoter. He was also a part-time DJ at rock radio station WKNR-FM, which most knew as Keener 13. In 1969 at WKNR, Gibb helped launch rumors of Paul McCartney’s death based on the comments of a caller.

Gibb, in his 30s at the time, liked being in the middle of things. His openness seemed to attract the right people to make his Grande Ballroom concept work, including talented psychedelic artist Gary Grimshaw, who created some of the most memorable psychedelic rock posters of the era. Grimshaw, who had spent time in San Francisco, was inspired by the early art of the psychedelic movement.

When the Grande opened as a psychedelic palace in late 1966, Detroit’s own MC5 was the headliner. Grimshaw’s poster, featuring a seagull surrounded by text in bubble letters, described the event as “A Dance Concert in the San Francisco Style.” Attendance for the opening was weak, but the MC5 returned the next week with the Woolies, whose hit “Who Do You Love?” was charting across the country. Audiences quickly got bigger, and so did the bands. It wasn’t unusual for crowds to exceed the venue’s 1,500 person limit.

The Grande was essentially a no-alcohol teen club. A requirement that patrons be 17 year old was mostly ignored. Patrons usually came high, but using weed and other psychedelics was common at the venue. Lansing attorney and musician Bob Baldori, former keyboard and harmonica player for the Woolies, remembers walking in to the Grande for the first time.

“It was a cavernous place, with the lights kept low and everyone was high all of the time,” he said. “The Grande allowed fans to get real close to the musicians and it fueled their play. Most bands were amped all the way.”

Baldori’s father, coincidentally, had played the Grande with the Ralph Bowen Orchestra in 1950s.

Stories from Detroit’s own John Sinclair and members of MC5 add color and background to the book. The MC5 recorded its debut album, “Kick out the Jams,” at the Grande on Devil’s Night and Halloween in 1968. Concert goers shared stories of seeing some of the greatest bands of the time up close in personal. At one performance, for example, Joplin left the stage to dance with an audience member.

“I had enough for two books,” Early said. “I had to cut out a lot of groups. It was one versus the other and it shook out of the bottom like pinballs.”

And speaking of pinballs, the first time the Who performed “Tommy” live was on the Grande stage.