“Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story”
Janis Joplin, The Who, B.B. King, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Cream, Vanilla Fudge, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead—these are names that have been a part of our musical culture for generations. All of them are legends and many are fixtures in our collective musical psyche. But there was a time when these artists and many others were virtual unknowns, with careers in their mere infancy. The Grande Ballroom is one of the hallowed halls of contemporary music and was instrumental in giving birth to many of these timeless acts.
Located at 8952 Grand River Avenue near Joy Road in Detroit, the Grande Ballroom literally stands as a skeleton of what it once was, in utter disrepair and almost unrecognizable from its original state. Built in 1928, it was a thriving retail complex, with a hardwood dance floor that housed big bands of the day on the upper level. Fast forward to the mid-‘60s where a burgeoning youth movement, musical culture and political climate was rapidly changing across the U.S. and the world.
Dearborn-based radio deejay, educator and promoter Russ Gibb was plugged into the changes going on in the culture and had an epiphany while taking a trip to San Francisco. He checked out what was happening with the hippie movement and, in particular, nightclubs and venues like the Fillmore West featuring the major rock bands of the day. Gibb brought his enthusiasm back to his hometown of Detroit and staked out a location for a venue that would rival what was going on with either the West or East coasts.
Detroit-area filmmaker Tony D’Annunzio has embarked on telling this essentially untold story in his upcoming documentary entitled Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story. The modest auteur, who is employed with Jeff Moon Production Services of Royal Oak, explains this project was indeed a labor of love. “I’ve been doing film and video production for over twenty years,” says D’Annunzio. “At the twenty-year mark one of my best friends Mike Staff, who used to be at WRIF, and I were talking about how we found professions we both enjoyed and really had a passion for.
The company I work for does a lot of network broadcasting for television and I realized I’ve worked with six of the last seven presidents, covered two Super Bowls, NBA championships, five Stanley Cup series, done commercials with the Rolling Stones, videos with Jimmy Buffett and Kid Rock, but never directed my own documentary.”
Knowing it was going to be a self-funded venture, D’Annunzio gave himself a three to five year time frame to complete the project. And if he was going to put his own money and effort into it, the subject would have to be something he felt a passion for.
“I wanted to do something that showcased Detroit and its music,” explains the filmmaker. “From a producer/director standpoint I didn’t think I was ready to take on someone’s life story, but maybe doing something on a place like the Grande, that encompassed the MC5 and all these other great people would be an interesting story that hasn’t been told yet.”
From 1966 to 1972 the Grande Ballroom not only showcased all the aforementioned stars of classic national and international status but also spotlighted local Detroit artists that rose to prominence like Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Ted Nugent, Grand Funk Railroad, SRC, Third Power, Scott Morgan and the Rationals and the MC5.
“It was really an important place in a lot of people’s lives,” says D’Annunzio. “I was too young to have gone there. I was born in ’66 but it left a big impact and it was the birth of a culture. The music was obviously important but there was [also] the poster art and the light shows. Before the Grande the only places bands would play were VFW halls and cover bars. The Grande opened up so many outlets for bands, artists, photographers. Before the Grande there was really no need for rock photography.”
A benefit was held recently to raise money for music licensing and legal fees in order to complete the film. It was held at the Magic Bag Theater in Ferndale where a near capacity house gathered to listen to three great local acts and watch trailers and clips from the upcoming movie. Everyone from B.B. King, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Mark Farner, Don Was and Roger Daltrey to Lemmy, Tom Morello, Henry Rollins and Slash all make an appearance in the film, each singing the praises of the storied venue and the influence of Detroit music.
A large part of the Grande Ballroom story is the psychedelic poster art created by Detroit-based artists Gary Grimshaw, Carl Lundgren, Donnie Dope and Stanley Mouse. They created handbills and flyers that proclaimed upcoming music events in brilliant colors and mind-blowing images. Some of these original prints go for anywhere from $8-$10,000. And, in fact, Lundgren designed the poster art and t-shirt logos for the documentary.
There is also a socio-political component to the Grande Ballroom story that cannot go untold. As the director D’Annunzio explains, “Russ Gibb was one of the first people I talked to when I started making this film and he was incredibly gracious and a great man,” says the filmmaker. “He told me the story of being out at a barbecue at Kensington Park when they heard that the riots were breaking out in downtown Detroit. He was with Tim Buckley—a legendary singer-songwriter of the day—and his drummer, who happened to be African-American. They quickly wanted to get back to the city to make sure the Grande building remained safe. …Gibb and Buckley, who were white, crouched down in the back seat and the drummer (who was driving) stopped some kids on the street and asked them how come nobody touched the Grande. The kids said ‘because they got the music in there.’”
“Even though there were different races that went to the Grande, people were accepting of each other because they knew there were other ways of doing things,” D’Annunzio continues. “And that’s how the White Panther Party started, with John Sinclair and the MC5 backing the black citizens. So the story is obviously very music-based but also left quite a big impact on the culture…”
Production for Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story is almost complete and plans for a Detroit debut are right around the corner. “My hope is that the country and the world will recognize how important the Grande was to rock history,” concludes D’Annunzio. “I really believe it is one of the greatest untold stories in music.”
For more information on the film or to contact Tony D’Annunzio you can go to firstname.lastname@example.org, www.indiegogo.com, find Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story on Facebook or search Vimeo for the official trailer.