The Eastown Theatre went from being an opulent, family-friendly movie house in Detroit around the 1930s, to a rough-and-tumble rock-and-roll rave spot plagued by bad luck in the 1960s. After being shut down for a brief period in the early ’70s, the Eastown was renamed the Showcase Theatre and opened up for another run in 1976. In a record-breaking turn of luck for the theatre, James Brown brought his “Body Heat” Tour to the Eastown for a 6-day stint which included 14 performances by Brown within those 6 days. Due to consistent crime in the area, high drug-dealing traffic, and little to no security at the venue, the “Showcase Theatre” did not long survive the late ’70s. Brown’s string of shows would be one of the last great performance runs the Eastown Theatre would see, but even those performances were by no means smooth sailing — a dispute between James Brown and the theatre over rent money almost cost James Brown over $50,000 in equipment. The Eastown Theatre may be cursed, but still it provided Detroit with some of it’s purest rock and roll moments as well as, if you can even imagine it now, a place for families to take in a 15-cents-per-ticket film surrounded by elegance.
New Bethel Baptist Church, located on Linwood St. and previously located on Hastings, was founded in 1948 by the Reverend C.L. Franklin. In the 1960s, Franklin was recording sermons from New Bethel Baptist on the gospel label Chess Records, becoming one of the first ministers to do so. He was known as the man with the “million-dollar voice.” That vocal prowess would be carried down through the Franklin family, as evidenced by Franklin’s daughter Aretha. Aretha Franklin made her vocal debut singing solos at her father’s church when she was only 10 years old. By the time she was 14 and under her father’s management, she was out on the road singing with gospel caravan tours, building her reputation as one of Detroit’s most radiant voices of all time.
Enjoy a performance by the legendary Aretha Franklin from 1970 below.
Did you ever hear the one about Paul McCartney dying and being replaced by a doppelganger in 1966? The “Paul Is Dead” controversy than began as The Beatles were in their final years as a band together was fueled right here in Detroit, MI. Russ Gibb, WKNR-FM Detroit DJ and Grande Ballroom Godfather, received a call to the station on October 12, 1969 from Tom Zarski at Eastern Michigan University, asking Gibb if he had ever listened to The Beatles’ White Album backwards, in particular the song “Revolution 9.” Zarski explained the controversy in depth, telling Gibb about the hidden clues in the song that Paul McCartney was actually dead and replaced by a look-alike, including the cryptic “turn me on, dead man” message you could hear by playing the record in reverse. Gibb played “Revolution 9” backwards on the air — listeners in Detroit were stunned, as was Russ Gibb, who was soon receiving hundreds of calls and clues from all over contributing to the runaway train that Paul McCartney was no longer with us. Gibb even aired a 2-hour special on WKNR-FM on October 19, 1969, “The Beatle Plot,” discussing all of the clues and evidence found by listeners and analyzing the conspiracy. Detroit; home of the greatest rock-and-roll rumor of the 20th century.
If you were a kid who spent most of their TV watching time obsessed with the old Nickelodeon lineup, you most likely made the tune-in for ‘The Adventures of Pete & Pete,’ a classic which harbors a laundry-list of cameos and guest starring roles, including Donovan, Debbie Harry, LL Cool J, Michael Stipe, and more. Perhaps one of the most memorable guest appearances came from none other than James Newell Osterberg, Jr. (known by most as Iggy Pop), who played the role of James Mecklenberg for five episodes of the series. James Mecklenberg was the father of Michelle Trachtenberg’s character, Nona F. Mecklenberg (who loved her itchy cast and wanted to change her middle name to ‘Forklift’), and proved just how much of a bad-ass dad he was when he sang to Nona at the school dance in the memorable episode clip you can watch below. It’s no ‘Raw Power,’ but it is fantastic none-the-less.
Music and boxing may not quite go together like peanut butter & jelly, but in Detroit’s long history of both, there is one figure who became a legend in music and fought on the same bill as a legend in boxing. Berry Gordy Jr. is the name that put Motown on the map and brought the soul and spirit of Detroit music to the masses, but before he founded the Motown sound, he tried out a career as a professional boxer. Dropping out of high school in eleventh grade to pursue this dream, Berry Gordy Jr. was in the featherweight division and fought 17 professional matches, winning 12 of them with 5 KOs total before he ended his boxing career in 1950. In 1948 at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium, Berry Gordy Jr. fought on the same bill that another well-known Detroiter was on, “The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis. Following his boxing career, Berry Gordy Jr. joined the Army and served in Korea for 3 years, and then returned to the U.S. to pursue music and songwriting…the rest is Motown history.
In 1971 over a 72-hour period of time, a band comprised of 3 musicians from Flint, MI managed to completely sell out their show at Shea Stadium in New York City. Ticket sales from this event grossed over $300,000, and at the time, The Beatles held the record for the fastest sold-out show in the stadium’s history. It was none other than Michigan’s own Grand Funk Railroad who crushed The Beatles’ attendance record. This was also the first time that one American group had ever headlined at Shea. Approximately 12,000 fans camped outside of Shea Stadium in order to secure tickets the morning they went on sale, and another 9,000 fans showed up early to get their Grand Funk. Grand Funk Railroad’s incredible victory is still held in the record books of Shea Stadium to this very day.
Detroit is a city known for founding and popularizing many influential forms of music (Techno, Hardcore, Motown, etc.), but if you want to get technical, Detroit could also be considered the birthplace of both punk rock and heavy metal. Why? Because in 1969, Barry Kramer and Tony Reay started a rock and roll publication in Detroit by the name of CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine. The magazine was first distributed in and around Detroit, and it was in this publication that emerging styles of rock were first referred to as ‘punk rock’ or ‘heavy metal.’
The Lourds were a group of high school kids from Detroit who formed in the very early 1960s, wanting to play some straight-up rock and roll. In 1964, The Lourds had the opportunity to enter a “Battle of the Bands.” When the group went on to perform, they played covers of the songs “High Heeled Sneakers” and “Shake A Tail Feather.” The highlight of the performance came when the band’s 16-year-old guitar player leapt up onto the judges’ table and fired off his guitar solo to the delight of the crowd. The guitar solo sealed the deal for The Lourds, who won an opening gig to play for The Supremes at Cobo Hall. Shortly after their stunning performance, the group disbanded after their guitarist, Ted Nugent, had to move to Chicago with his parents. John Drake, the lead vocalist for The Lourds, would eventually meet back up with Nugent in Chicago to form The Amboy Dukes, where the Motor City Mad Man would first gain great recognition.
Enjoy a performance of The Amboy Dukes from The Detroit Music Awards in 2009, and Nugent at DTE riding a bison onstage in 2001. That’s Detroit Rock City for you!
Hank Ballard was a native of Detroit who was considered (along with Bill Haley) to be one of the first rock and roll artists to emerge in the 1950s. Hank Ballard released a song called ‘Teardrops On Your Letter’ in 1959 along with his group, The Midnighters. On the B-Side of that single was another song written by the band, called ‘The Twist.’ It was barely a modest success upon its release, until it was re-recorded by Chubby Checker and released the following year, becoming a #1 hit and a dance craze across the USA. Checker may have popularized the song and dance, but those rock and roll roots were first nourished by Hank Ballard and The Midnighters in Detroit.
Please enjoy a video interview with Hank Ballard and The Midnighters about some of their best-known songs and what playing music means to them, and also the original version of ‘The Twist’ below.
The Spinners were an influential group of 5 Ferndale natives on the Motown label who regularly played inside the lounge at the legendary 20 Grand Nightclub in Detroit. In the late 1960s, the club had a house band which boasted a fellow Detroit guitarist so impressive to The Spinners, that he was added to their touring group. The guitarist was Ray Parker Jr. In addition to working with The Spinners, Ray Parker Jr. would also go on to do session work for fellow Detroiters Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and The Temptations.
Now go back to 1984 and get this classic theme song stuck in your head all over again!
In the summer of 1925 in Highland Park, MI, a boy named William John Clifton Haley was born. William John Clifton Haley eventually shortened his name to Bill Haley, got himself some Comets as a backing band, and became dubbed ‘The Father of Rock and Roll,’ thanks to hits like Rock Around The Clock and Shake, Rattle and Roll. He ignited a rebellion in 1950s youth culture and paved the way for statement-making rock music for years to come.
Detroit funk legend Dennis Coffey became the first white person to have their song played on Soul Train. Season 1 Episode 15.
Artist: Dennis Coffey & The Detroit Guitar Band
Click here to enjoy full performance from Soul Train!