The Yardbirds headline the Grande Ballroom’s 50th anniversary bash

Celebrating Detroit’s temple of rock ‘n’ roll

Saturday's 50th anniversary celebration of the Grande Ballroom — the legendary, now dilapidated music palace at 8952 Grand River Ave., that symbolized sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll for a generation of Detroiters — will be highlighted by a performance from one of the British Invasion bands that established an American beachhead on the Grande stage, the Yardbirds.

And for one member of that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ensemble, improbably, the occasion serves as an opportunity to return home.

When John Idan, the melodically bluesy guitarist and vocalist who has been with the Yardbirds on and off since 1992, says he hails from "greater Detroit," he means it. "I was born in Royal Oak, but I lived so many places," Idan says. "I think from my birth to age 24 I lived in 13 different residences."

He says he came from "a broken home, but a good broken home," and his parents were continually downsizing their dwellings. "I lived in Bloomfield, Palmer Park, Boston-Edison, Warren," he says. "I was moving like every 18 months." And while the sounds of southeast Michigan shaped and influenced his life's passion, they include no memories of bands blasting from the second floor of the Grande.

"Not ... one ... iota," Idan says, laughing. "I was born in '64, so I wasn't even able to go to live concerts until about 1976 or '77." (The Grande opened in October 1966 and closed on New Year's Eve 1972.)

"It's been a pure honor to have been involved in the Yardbirds all these years, and being good friends with [original members] Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty [the British drummer, not the Detroit guitarist], they used to talk about those ballroom gigs. This will be the biggest gig we've done in Detroit."

It's big, alright. The official reunion, from 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center in Dearborn, will feature a rock 'n' roll art exhibit including the works of Leni Sinclair and Gary Grimshaw, a classic car show, '60s fashion show, and 50 memorabilia vendors, in addition to all-day performances by some of the Grande's most reliable acts.

Besides the Yardbirds, bands scheduled to appear include the Wha'? (believed to have played on Grande opening night), Thomas Blood, the Gang, Frijid Pink, Stoney and the Jagged Edge, and SRC/Detroit Wheels veteran Ray Goodman leading the Grande All-Star Band including Drew Abbott, Gary Rasmussen, and Johnny "Bee" Badanjek.

Historian Leo Early, who is hosting a bus tour Friday of Detroit rock locations ­— including, of course, the Grande, which is far too rickety to accommodate the reunion — this month completed his book 12 years in the making, The Grande Ballroom – Detroit's Rock 'n' Roll Palace, and will be signing copies on Saturday. And "Uncle Russ" Gibb, the Dearborn schoolteacher who turned music impresario after a trip to San Francisco and reopened the Grande Ballroom for rock, is scheduled to appear at the anniversary despite being 85 and in failing health.

Event coordinator Michele Lundgren and her husband, the renowned rock poster artist Carl Lundgren, took on the challenge of organizing and promoting the ballroom's golden gala after being disappointed by previous Grande anniversary efforts. "I knew it was the 50th coming up, so I knew it was meaningful," says Michele, who sold 100 VIP tickets at $100 each in her first day of planning to gather seed money for the reunion.

They've dubbed Saturday "The Last Jam," with solid reasoning: at 66 and recovering from a stroke herself, Michele suspects many of her contemporaries may not be around for a 60th anniversary. "I wanted this to be an added value," she says. "I wanted it to be an event, not just a bunch of people sitting around eating and drinking. It's something that everyone can participate in, not just fans of the Grande Ballroom."

What is it about the Grande that engenders such affection and reverence, even among Detroiters who, like Idan, couldn't possibly have been around to experience its heyday?

"In 1966 the rock 'n' roll transition was taking place, and for a certain group of people it was very isolated," Michele suggests. "They were misfits. These people caught on to music and dance and the British invasion, the 'Summer of Love' in 1967, San Francisco, Woodstock. Everybody was taking drugs and expanding their consciousness. The Grande was the place we could feel at home."

Lundgren expects a homecoming sellout in the Michael A. Guido Theatre for the 8 p.m. Yardbirds concert, but the $25 day pass will allow admittance to a standing-room overflow space. Recent additions also include a state-of-the-art "Studio A" that will screen continuous concert videos contributed by Grande fans.

In perhaps the most remarkable new development, Lundgren says the Detroit church that owns the Grande property, and has for years rebuffed every overture to sell, may have been swayed by the emotion and publicity surrounding the golden anniversary.

"There has been talk that the church may consider selling the Grande," Lundgren says. "It's just talk at this stage, but we have investors. The other ballroom, the Vanity, just sold and they are restoring that now.

"Though the Grande is in really bad condition, there may be something that can be done with it. I'm not sure they can restore it, but they could rebuild it for a lot cheaper. Maybe put a museum there or something."

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