Russ Gibb

By Scott Westerman
©2003 – All Rights Reserved

Much of the City of Dearborn looks as it did when Russ Gibb first entered the WKMH studios in 1963. The trees are bigger and an occasional small satellite dish peeks out from beneath a soffit, but the old neighborhoods look almost exactly the same. Michigan Avenue still crosses Military Drive, Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum still draw thousands of visitors every week. And over the years Russ Gibb has been teaching high school kids about media… and life.

Russ is alternately described by those who know him as a renaissance man, a curmudgeon, a genius and a lunatic. If you spend enough time with him, you’re likely to hear Russ use these terms to describe himself. His resume includes incarnations as a concert promoter, a poet, cable television pioneer, a federal bureaucrat who was known to half a dozen presidents, and a friend and confidant to some of popular music’s great and near great artists.

He was also one who helped develop and define what came to be known as underground radio. It happened almost accidentally and it happened at WKNR-FM. His programs were the carefully conceived antithesis of what was going on at Keener 13. Where Keener featured a tight play-list, rigid formatics and high energy, WKNR-FM featured languid album tracks, eclectic, almost hypnotic talk-sets and spaces between the program elements. Silence. The format attracted the exact demographic that Russ was packing in at his Grande Ballroom to hear artists like Iggy Pop and David Bowie, and Russ’ unique relationship with the station made it possible for him to become a rock impresario.

My guess is that In his heart of hearts, Russ would like to be remembered as a teacher. In his teaching practice he fought for a brand of education that did not delineate between the arts, letters and numbers. To him there was science in music, there was art in equations and there was genius hidden somewhere inside every kid that sat in his classroom. Russ would probably want to be remembered for nurturing young talent, kids who went on to win Emmys, create computers from paper, develop early smart cards and Internet audio streams, and were catalysts that helped to redefine popular culture.

But among all of his achievements, Russ Gibb will forever be connected with the “Death” of Paul McCartney.

Russ avoids interviews. He’s been asked the same questions thousands of times. So I felt a particular responsibility to be prepared when he agreed to meet me one of his favored breakfast hangouts. I read everything I could find about the “Paul is Dead” story, and in every instance, Russ was a common thread. The best chronicle seemed to be Andru Reve’s outstanding book, “Turn Me On, Dead Man”. A 1969 picture of Russ is the second thing you see, after a shot of McCartney in-concert. He looks like a cross between Gene Simmons and Howard Stern, clad in high-heeled leather boots, tight jeans, I-shirt, and Roseanne Roseannadana hair-cut. Could this be the same man who augmented his legend with ultra-conservative commentary on Detroit country radio in the 70s?

Today Russ has a more mild-mannered appearance. As I shook his hand and took his measure it occurred to me that he could have passed for my conservative, silver-haired father-in-law. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

KEENER13.COM: How did you first get into broadcasting?

RG: I was a floor director for WWJ TV and heard about WBRB. The station was licensed to Mt. Clemens and had studios in the old Colonial Hotel. From there I migrated to WKMH. I ran board for Lee Alan and engineered the man-on-the-street bits that were popular at the time. Robin Seymour took his microphone to the corner of Michigan and Shaffer and interviewed people. After a time I was asked to create a public affairs program called “PM Detroit”. It was an incredibly arduous program to produce.. lots of tape editing by hand to get a half hour show.

KEENER13.COM: This pre-dated Frank Maruca’s arrival.

RG: I remember the first day Frank came to the station. He told me that his wife and family couldn’t follow him to Detroit right away and he wanted to find a place to stay until they came up. I had an extra room and invited him to stay with us. We ended up being roommates for six months.

KEENER13.COM: How did the WKNR-FM thing come about?

RG: The FCC decided that stations could no longer simulcast their entire broadcast day, so we had to come up with something for the FM. Frank thought we should do the opposite of what was on the AM, so we started playing longer album tracks and I talked about whatever came to mind.

KEENER13.COM: The birth of underground radio.

RG: WABX and WKNR-FM were both doing the same thing in Detroit. WXYZ-FM became WRIF and did it later. We learned that the format appealed to the college kids and targeted our programming to what they thought was hip. We were making our own rules as we went along. In the late sixties it was sex, drugs and rock and roll. I created a bunch of characters that fit in with that scene: The McDonald Drop-outs, Roger Goodtime, Little Bo Peep and Kilo the Dog were some of them. A lot of the language on underground radio included code words connected with dope and partying. The kids understood what we were talking about, but went right over the parents’ heads. And there was a lot of direct interaction with the audience on the phone.

KEENER13.COM: How did you come up with your air name?

RG: The story I told listeners was that I was a visitor from another planet. I came to earth and landed in my flying saucer out in California at Big Sur. I needed an identity and as I looked in the rear view mirror I saw a sign that said ruS giB. And that’s what I decided to use for my earthly incarnation.

KEENER13.COM: At the same time you were developing a reputation as a concert promoter.

RG: I had several venues; the most popular was the Grande Ballroom which I opened in 1966. I booked a lot of acts that were popular with the underground audience and worked out an arrangement with the station to promote my shows on the air. It was a win-win.

KEENER13.COM: How did you come to know Eric Clapton and the Beatles?

RG: I met the Beatles when they played Olympia. WKNR promoted the event. Being on the air and a promoter was an entrée to a number of friendships. Many of the acts that came through the Grande were on their way up.

KEENER13.COM: Like Jimmy Osterberg?

RG: Iggy Pop was an interesting guy. He grew up in Ann Arbor and had a day job as a camp counselor at the YMCA while he was playing this music that came to be called “Punk” at night. He had just changed the name of his band to “The Stooges”. One time he came to see me with a toilet. He had modified the thing so that there was a microphone in the bowl that could amplify the flush. Another time he wore a tin-foil suit on stage. His mom made it for his act and during the course of the show he would slowly rip pieces of tin foil off of himself until it was in shreds.

KEENER13.COM: What were your impressions of the British rockers?

RG: All British pop music happened within this small area of London. The recording studios, the concert venues, the publishers and management were all in virtually the same neighborhood. I knew Eric Clapton fairly well. When I went to London I stayed at a flat he shared with Greg Parsons. Clapton was an art student then and painted his bathroom in psychedelic colors. Being young, we stayed up late many nights… playing monopoly. Pete Townsend was another fascinating person. He was an intellectual, very bright, and always encouraging new talent. I found John Lennon to be arrogant, which was a common perception. By 1968 there was a rift between he and Paul, who was a nice guy. George was the introspective one. One person I really liked was the Beatles producer George Martin. He was the opposite of the Beatles, a quiet technical artist from a middle class family. He created the technical sound that came to be associated with their music. He really had an impact on the group’s success.

KEENER13.COM: It sounds like these guys were a pretty close-knit community.

RG: Everybody knew everybody else. It was interesting to ask these guys who they admired. Some were considered out and out thieves, like Jimmy Page, who was always stealing other people’s licks. Clapton and Townsend thought Pentangle’s Burt Jansch and acoustic guitarist John Renborn were the best guitar players of the day. They are virtually unknown here in the states but were one of the most important influences on rock music of the 60s.

KEENER13.COM: So you had a unique frame of reference when you received the call that initiated the Paul rumors.

RG: I knew that the group was disintegrating. A year later they were history. I also knew from personal experience that in the entertainment business, 50% of what you hear is hype, 49% is BS and about 1% is true. There were always rumors about who was having relationships with who, band break ups and deaths. Bob Dylan was rumored to be dead after his motorcycle accident in 67.

KEENER13.COM: The WKNR FM airchecks on reveal a pretty sparce sound. Eclectic album cuts, very few commercials and a relaxed announcing style. What was the typical Sunday afternoon show like on WKNR-FM.

RG: It could be pretty boring for the jock. I liked to include phone calls from the audience and tried to find an issue to spark conversation. That Sunday in October when the kid called, things were slow and I was hoping that something would happen to generate some interesting interaction. They guy claimed to be calling from Ypsilanti, EMU I think it was. He said his name was “Tom” and he asked what I thought about this story that Paul McCartney was dead. I told him that there were always stories floating around rock and roll. And then he told me about the message in Revolution 9. I put the album on the turntable and played it backwards. That’s when I first heard the thing that everybody said sounded like “turn me on, dead man.”

KEENER13.COM: What happened next?

RG: The response was almost instant. Erik Smith came in from the newsroom and said, “Our phones are ringing off the hook about this thing.” People were calling with more clues and pounding on the glass of the station windows to show me evidence on the album covers. After awhile the private line rang. That’s the “bat phone” that the management uses when they have something important to tell the jock. It was Frank Maruca. He said, “Walter Patterson is telling me that something is happening up there. What are you doing?” I explained the story to him and he said, “Keep doing it!.”

KEENER13.COM: Andru Reve recounts how Fred Laboure heard your show that afternoon on his car radio, generating the satirical piece he wrote in the Michigan Daily.

RG: After a couple of days, the wire services were calling us; people from all over were calling us about it. The thing took on a life of its own. The Michigan State Police had equipment to filter audio recordings and we had them help us dig some of the messages out of other Beatles songs. We tried to get McCartney, but he had retreated to Scotland with his wife and daughters and wasn’t talking to the press.

KEENER13.COM: And you decided to contact London.

RG: I called Clapton. He told me at first that the story was false, but then said, “come to think of it, I haven’t talked to Paul in several weeks.” That added fuel to the fire. There was a lot of momentum to the story and people were caught up in the possibility that there might be some truth to it. I had a conversation with Derek Taylor. He was the Beatle’s PR guy during the US tours and he was really frustrated. He said, “How can a man prove he’s alive other than being alive?” I began to seriously doubt that Paul was dead.

KEENER13.COM: At one point Philip Nye said Paul was on the phone.

RG: Someone who claimed to be Paul called the newsroom. I didn’t think it was really him. There was a woman at Apple who could do a pretty good impression. We thought it might be her. I produced a sixty minute program on the clues along with John Small and Dan Carlisle. We listed the incriminating album art and played the cuts that supposedly had the messages in them. There was also a long segment with Derek Taylor doing his best to try to refute the rumors

KEENER13.COM: Do you think the Beatles were behind the hoax?

RG: No. They did not consciously start it, but I think they added fuel to the fire. One of the top guys at Capitol Records told me that the Paul is dead thing turned out to be a great sales promotion. They had a warehouse full of Beatles stock that went flying off the shelves after the rumors began.

KEENER13.COM: Did Capitol ever acknowledge your involvement in the event?

RG: One day a box arrived at the station and we discovered that Capitol had sent me a complete Beatles and Stones catalog. That’s all the thanks I got for helping them sell millions of dollars worth of records.

KEENER13.COM: Do you still get calls about the incident?

RG: Every October. It has an ebb and flow. I can tell when interest in the Beatles is increasing, because there are more calls.

KEENER13.COM: How long did you remain at WKNR?

RG: I left when it changed to Stereo Island.

KEENER13.COM: But you still promoted concerts.

RG: One day I saw someone in a band’s entourage had brought a gun to the old Michigan Theatre, where we were playing the New York Dolls. I began to realize that the drug thing had gotten out of control. Brian Jones was dead, Keith Moon was dead, Janis Joplin was dead, Jimi Hendrix was dead, all connected to booze and drugs. I sold my interest to Bamboo Productions in 1970.

KEENER13.COM: And after that.

RG: I was involved in many things. During the Ford administration I was the National Director of Youth Education for the Bicentennial White House. I worked on bringing cable TV to the area and continued to do radio projects. I hosted America’s first coast to coast telephone call in show called Night Call, on Mutual and initiated Cross Canada Check-Up, the first national talk show on CBC. I did a show for Tower 92 called “The 25th Hour” and did commentary on a country station.

KEENER13.COM: What was your first exposure to cable TV?

RG: I saw it at Mick Jagger’s estate in England. He lived at Stargrove Manor, a place built by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th Century. There was an antenna farm on the roof that Mick used to pick up Television from the Continent. They called it CATV. A few years later I bought the cable TV rights for Dearborn for $5,000.00. I remember Mayor Orville Hubbard telling the press that, “We found some lunatic who was willing to pay us for the right to put free TV on a wire and sell it to people.”

KEENER13.COM: What are you doing today?

RG: I’ve returned to my spirit self as the purser on the Japanese steamer Mitza Maru sailing somewhere in the South China Sea.

Link: Keener Kills Paul