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Book details
  • Genre:MUSIC
  • SubGenre:Discography & Buyer's Guides
  • Language:English
  • Pages:612
  • Hardcover ISBN:9781667883120

Big Dreams and the Detroit Record Business

by Gary A. Rubin

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The history of the music business and the people who were in it. From the recording stars to the promoters, writers, musicians, and the people who bought the records.

Big Dreams
 Gary Graff
04/05/2023 11:15 AM

Gary in Quad studio. photo Courtesy Gary Rubin.
Pioneer Recording’s Gary Rubin looks back at his behind-the-scenes role in the Detroit music business.

Recording gear is kind of an unusual item on the wish list of an average adolescent.

But the Webcor reel-to-reel machine Gary Rubin received as gift when he was 12 years old set him on the path for a history-making career.

“I just started recording people I knew and went from there,” the Detroit-born Rubin, now 76, says from Los Angeles, his home since 1996. And as chronicled in his new, self-published memoir, Big Dreams and the Detroit Record Business, Rubin’s recording acumen took him a great many places.

Gary RubinGary Rubin

From his basement studio at home, the Mumford High School graduate — who went on to study architecture at Lawrence Technological University and broadcasting at Michigan State University — built his passion into one of the metro area’s most prolific studios, Pioneer Recording, on James Couzens Highway less than a mile south of Northland Mall in Southfield. There, he recorded scores of musicians, including Eagles’ late Glenn Frey as a youth, as well as groups such as the Gambrells, the Tomangoes and the New Loves, who released music on Pioneer’s own record label.

Rubin and Pioneer also boasted a broad array of national and regional advertising companies, including the Detroit automotive companies and auto dealerships, Art Van Furniture, banks, beer brands, the Detroit Tigers, McDonald’s and the Coleman Young mayoral campaign. Pioneer was a training ground for recording engineers who went on to win Grammys and other awards, and Rubin also recorded bar mitzvah services and rabbinical sermons — some of which were part of the FBI investigation of the murder of Shaarey Zedek Rabbi Morris Adler during 1966.

And Rubin was happy to be behind the scenes rather than making music himself.

“I discovered early on I can’t sing a note, as much as I like music, and I couldn’t play an instrument,” Rubin acknowledges. He took accordion lessons, at his mother’s behest, when he was 10; “On Valentine’s Day, the teacher gave me a card and asked would I please stop taking lessons,” Rubin recalls. He enjoyed writing poetry and had some songwriting ambitions, but his real talents came from his ears.

“The end of the business I could really get into was being on the production side,” he says. “I had a talent for knowing talent and for knowing how to record them — sound engineering, acoustics, knowing how to get the right mics for the right instrument, lots of little techniques. I picked up most of the details on my own.”

Pioneer became part of a robust network of Detroit recording studios from its opening during the fall of 1964 into the ’80s, when Rubin sold it and went into the construction business.

Fame and More

There were many brushes with famous — at the time or future — musicians and other clients, but being a part of Frey’s early music career is among the best of his recurring stories.

“Glenn was friends with a lot of my friends, and a lot of these guys were in bands,” Rubin recalls. “Glenn and I just became good friends. He’d come over and go in the laundry room with my sister and make out.”

Glenn FreyWikipedia

Others who crossed paths with Rubin and Pioneer included Ray Goodman, guitarist with SRC, the Detroit Wheels and other bands, and a teenage Sixto Rodriguez, who would go on to fame as a recording artist under his surname and was the subject of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

Rubin recounts a great many tales and details in the sprawling Big Dreams, a coffee-table style tome that weighs in at more than 800 pages and combines commentary and stream-of-consciousness narration with diary-like entries. In addition to the studio, Rubin also writes about his upbringing and family as well as other pursuits and passions, such as the Detroit Tigers and screenplay writing (his older brother Bruce Joel Rubin is an Academy Award-winning writer whose credits include GhostJacob’s Ladder and My Life).

Rubin also delves into his views of the relationship between organized crime and the music industry.

“It seems to be that in the story of my life so many things are interconnected in so many different ways,” Rubin says. “I try to capture that in the book.”

The project itself was inspired by a Grandfather’s Journal that one of his four grandchildren gave him as a present, and then the pandemic lockdown offered more time to put his thoughts on paper.

“This isn’t a book I expect to make any money on. It’s too expensive and a bit too long,” Rubin acknowledges, adding that he went the self-publishing route so he could have full control over the content. “It’s really just a keepsake. If you’re really interested in what this has to say, it’s a really nice keepsake.”

Big Dreams is, in fact, just the first part of Rubin’s story. The second book is already written, and Rubin is hoping to develop “a TV series or a movie centering around the recording industry in Detroit.”

He’s also working with the London-based M & D Records label to re-release Pioneer titles by the Sensations and the Famous Brothers, among others.

“It’s been fun going down memory lane doing this,” Rubin adds. “It reminds you that everything’s cyclical. Not everything lasts. So just be grateful for everything you get out of life.”

BIG DREAMS AND THE DETROIT June 30th, 1946, life began for me as I first knew it. It was midnight so no sooner had I entered the world and I was no longer confided in my limited existence. I had been in a safe dark place, never having to search for food, or shelter. But now I was in the real world, and discovered I had a real family I was going to share my adventures. This family now consists of four of us. My Mother and Father and my brother Bruce. I quickly learned what it was like to be on my own and experience a large extended family and making friends throughout the neighborhood. At five I started Vernor Elementary, then Mumford High School where I learned the importance of friendship and I established a lot of lasting friendships that share my journey and remain friends with so many of them today. And it was while I was still at Vernor Elementary, I started a recording studio. In 1964 I graduated Elementary and started Mumford High School and met or met many people from both schools that would be famous, and someway intertwined with mine. During High School, my studio became part of the community and a focus of my life, recording young bands, singers, and musicians and one became the lead singer and guitar player for a famous group that set the record for a single album for most albums sold at forty-one million surpassing Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. It was also during these years that I got my driver's licenses opening my up to additional job opportunities where I became assistant publicity director for "Northland Playhouse," the Publicity Director died so I actual took on that roll. It was a summer stock theater which featured famous Movie and TV stars like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joel Grey, Jayne Mansfield, Merv Griffin, and so many more. Marv and I got to go on a double date. I didn't limit myself to just the growing studio, Northland Playhouse, I also worked for John Essex the Publicity Director at the Fisher Theater also doing assistant publicity in the non-summer months and worked on the World Premiere of "Fidler on the Roof," with Zero Mostel and the World Premiere of "Golden Boy" with Sammy Davis Junior. I got to spend a lot of time with Sammy Davis as he also recorded an Album with Count Basie. And by the fall of 1964 I began college attending Michigan State University. My life was busy and complicated, and I drove a lot. And as the studio grew, we not only recorded records, but we also started working with Advertising Agencies, Record Producers, Record Labels, and independent producers and groups. Constant building and rebuilding as we expanded. Signing our own groups, led to promoting them, live performances, rehearsals, and audition new groups, and recording famous groups, and of course how payola, drugs, sex, violence, all played a crucial factor in the success of the local groups. By 1967 Detroit had elected Mayor Coleman Young and we recorded all the commercials for his campaign, but with a corrupt chief of police, and racial tension Detroit was feeling the stress. And Motown and all the other record companies had helped to make Detroit the record capitol of the world producing the most number one records in forty-eight out of fifty straight years. And with the top cocaine dealer in the country living a couple blocks from the studio and visiting us daily when he walked his dog. Our studio has now become a target of the FBI. Raiding us often. As the studio grew expanding its space, one of my partners decided to go into the commercial Jingle business, which he wanted me to do too. But I was too busy but did help him write a copy for his Advertising agency when he started that, and he took over office space in the next building north of us. And the three partners that started running the studio together in 1966 were now faced with many decisions as we expanded our group roster, started expanding the studio taking over the rest of the block.
About the author
Has anyone ever turned to you and asked you to describe yourself in five words? For some it may be easy and for others impossible. But I took the challenge and answered Ambitious, Thoughtful, Dreamer, Friendly, and Considerate. And then I stopped to think that a person is more than five words, and although those may be some good or bad traits it is only a small glimpse into the person, I started off as, and later became. My life was unconventional, and I guess my first trait might capture that as nothing was going to stop me from trying. Ambitious, I wanted to succeed, and yet I had several talents and interests and as early as twelve years old when I started a recording studio and turned it into a business one year after Berry Gordy incorporated Motown in 1959. And a year later I formed Pioneer Recording with Eli Scherr and Craig Carnick, which later became a record company and where fellow high school kids were forming bands and performing at local clubs, and Barbara Streisand was getting her professional start at the Caucus Club in the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. And across the Ocean, the European invasion started and groups like the Beatles, Dave Clark five, Jerry and The Pacemakers, started an explosion of new talented groups and uprising was about to begin in the United States. And they all needed a place to record, and I wanted Pioneer to be that place. Early on I met Pete Cantini who had a club in Southfield Michigan called the Raven where he became famous for promoting the Folk Scene with Joanie Mitchel, The Smother Brothers, and locals like The Spike Drivers. I decided to hold open Auditions at my studio and got into the record business. Shelia Fantish whose uncle ran Motown, and Glen Frey, who later became the lead singer and guitar player for The Eagles, both with a dream to become famous. And a friend by the name of Howard Friedman wrote a song he wanted to have recorded, so I put a session together as they recorded a record for the first time. So that was part of the beginning of Pioneer going into the record business. It was their dreams and mine and so many others that made me take the journey I did. Later meeting and working with Sammy Davis Junior, Don Davis, Brenda Lee, and Diana Ross and the Supremes at the Roostertail Night Club and hundreds of others as they searched for success. By 1964 I had opened the first four track open recording studio in Michigan on James Cousins Highway. And being the Record Capitol of the world, it brought corruption, as payola, drugs, sex and violence became a part of the record world. And music was a part of everyone's life. Concerts halls, and clubs opened throughout the state and every type of music from church choirs, country and western, Jazz, and now Motown were filling up the airways, and the record racks, and everyone was listening to music at home or on the radio, or at live performances. And I was about to make many people's dreams come true and take you on my journey and experience what it was like over sixty-two years ago to live in Detroit, through its amazing growth after World War II and the home and birthplace of so many future stars and relive their success, failures and struggles and overcoming challenges to reach some new heights. The home to Madonna, Bob Seger, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, M & M, Sonny Bono, and Sixto Diaz Rodriquez about fourteen and unknown and hanging out with Michael Coffee often at our studio would be discovered in Africa where he would sell out 60,000 seat stadiums and be featured on Sixty Minutes on October 7, 2020. Almost sixty years to realize his dream. And the best part of living a dream is to share it and for the past fifty years I have been sharing my dream with Suzy Kahl and we were married nine months later.

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