Legend has it Berry Gordy used to bring a Motorola car speaker into the Hitsville, U.S.A. studios so the Motown Records releases he was mixing would play especially fine over a dashboard radio.
In a city whose reputation was built on wheels, the music blasting from our four-wheeled entertainment centers — and the men and women who brought it to us as our audio emcees — hold a special place in Detroit's collective memory. For many Detroiters, those soundtracks of our lives are likely to come rocking back this Saturday at "The Last Great Detroit Radio Reunion" from 1-6 p.m. at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi.
In one sense, the last shall be first. Four previous reunions of current and former radio personalities have been held here since 1988, but they were largely social occasions for disc jockeys to get together, swap industry war stories, and tell each other they've never looked better. Saturday's affair, for the first time, will be open to the public and feature live and video presentations, Q&A sessions, and book signings.
"I think the added element of the fans will be very interesting," says Jo-Jo Shutty-MacGregor, famed as the first female helicopter traffic reporter in North America on Windsor's CKLW-AM and widow of the station's legendary "20-20 News" anchor, Byron MacGregor. "Because it hasn't been done this way before. I'm proud of my past. Skeletons in my closet? None to speak of. Why wouldn't I want to interact with people?"
Past reunions have attracted hundreds of airwave idols from Detroit's storied past. According to the event website (thelastreunion.com), those expected to attend include such radio royalty as Pat St. John, Tom Shannon, Jim Kerr, Joey Reynolds, Gary Burbank, Fred "Boogie" Brian, Duke Windsor, Charlie O'Brien, and "Keener 13" alums Jerry Goodwin, Bob Green, and Paul Cannon.
Such latter-day legends as Jim "J.J." Johnson, Doug Podell, Allan Wilson, and Frank Beckmann are expected to make an appearance as well. Even ex-Detroit Tiger Denny McLain, whom you may recall once hosted a successful morning-drive talk show on WXYT-AM, has RSVPd.
However, the man of the moment by far, the one Detroit media immortal even the reunion's other attendees want to see, is guest of honor Robin Seymour, the rock 'n roll pioneer on WKMH and CKLW radio and originator of the storied local TV series Swingin' Time.
For the too-young or uninitiated, Swingin' Time was a half-hour live weekday dance party and artist showcase, our own version of American Bandstand, that aired in the '60s on Windsor's CKLW-TV. Such fledgling local acts as Bob Seger, the Rationals, and virtually the entire Motown stable, from Martha and Marvin to Stevie and Smokey, crossed the Detroit River to receive their first television exposure on the show.
Seymour, now 94 and living in Texas, was twice named national "Disc Jockey of the Year" and was said to possess an uncanny knack for spotting up-and-coming talent for Swingin' Time. "It was just the idea that we had a program that for seven years brought the kids together," says Seymour, who chronicles the experience in his new book The DJ Who Launched 1,000 Hits with co-author Carolyn Rosenthal.
"It didn't matter who they were or what they were or where they came from, and it just kept going and growing," he marvels. "This was the way the Motown sound really started to happen on the show. It had no color line. The artists had an opportunity to perform where people could see them, and that's where it all started to happen."
That bond will be acknowledged. As part of Seymour's first trip to Detroit in more than a decade, he is scheduled to appear from 3-5 p.m. Thursday in Studio A at the Motown Museum, 2648 West Grand Boulevard, to greet tour visitors and answer questions. (Tickets are available at motownmuseum.org.)
There was some sentiment for holding this final reunion in 2020. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of Detroit's WWJ-AM, indeed the 100th birthday for radio itself. But Lee Alan, onetime star at WXYZ-AM and longtime local media production owner now living in Florida, pushed to have the event moved up and opened to the public.
"Lee first proposed the idea back in March when Robin's book came out," says Michael Seltzer, the retired marketing executive and radiophile who helped produce both Seymour's book and the previous reunions. "I gave him my two cents based on our years of planning and promoting these events, but Lee is Lee and he's always wanted to do it this way."
One should never say never where Detroit, media, and egos are concerned, but all signs point to this indeed being the final radio roundup:
The planning and logistics involved in pulling off such an event are becoming more grueling; Millie Felch Coffey, one of the driving forces with Seltzer, Dick Kernen of the Specs Howard School of Media Arts, and broadcast chronicler Art ("Radio's Best Friend") Vuolo behind previous reunions, died in June, and while Seymour will be the oldest Detroit radio legend in attendance, his contemporaries aren't far behind.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," Seymour says. "It's going to be terrific seeing all these people again. There will be so many positive vibes coming in, I think that's the main thing. It's just going to rub off on everybody who comes."
Right back atcha, Robin. "I think that's one reason we're all coming together, for him," Shutty-MacGregor opines. "We all admire him, appreciate him, and want to pay respect to someone who has had great variety in his life but stayed in one market. If you think about it, all the work he did was in Detroit and Windsor. The fact he can be with us and wants to do this is very special.
"And afterward, we're going to party till the cows come home."
The Last Great Detroit Radio Reunion takes place from 1-6 p.m. Saturday at the Suburban Collection Showplace, 46100 Grand River Avenue, Novi; 248-348-5600; suburbancollectionshowplace.com. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the door. For more information, tickets, and a list of invited attendees, go to thelastreunion.com.
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