Snoop Dogg and Tony Green (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
*special thank you to Dominic Riggio (Mess Bucket Comics) for introducing me to Tony Green*
Detroit, Michigan! A surfeit of wonderful characters and talented musicians regularly emanate from this city like mystical vapors, spreading transformable currents of raw talent, tendrils of undulating electricity, that levitate the membrane with a new form of sentience.
Also known as Tony Green, T-Money Green, TMoneyG, T-Green, T. Green, etc. Born and raised and holding it down for the city, Tony has been playing the bass with his distinct tone and timbre for over five decades. His style is immediately recognizable and has been influential on a global scale.
Detroit’s Tony Green of The Dramatics (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
An oft unacknowledged musical prodigy, Tony toured with soul R&B group The Dramatics for two decades, then worked with Pfunk’s George Clinton, then shot out to the West Coast to help create the G-Funk sound by working with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Death Row Records in the early to mid 90’s.
Tony is a producer and ASCAP award-winning composer. In addition to playing with countless fellow high-level musicians over the years, he has created community by introducing many musicians to each other. The scope and depth of his true-life story has been largely unacknowledged until recently when Detroit author Jackie Wallace wrote a book about his life called Behind The Wall.
At this exact moment, I’m sitting inside Tony’s living room at 7 Mile and Livernois on Detroit’s Upper Westside. Present are Dr. Gail Soo Hoo (the Flue Doctor), Tony’s brother Will, and Zeus, the popcorn-eating Presa Canario puppy.
Tony has a gold record on the wall, an upside-down bass in his hand, and that exciting glint one gets when pulling out the treasure map to a constellation of thoroughly fascinating life stories.
Alright, all you boppers out there in the big city with an ear for the action. Sit back, relax, and listen to these tales true and gems uncut from Detroit’s own Tony Green.
Tony Green gold record for The Dramatics ‘Do What You Want to Do’ (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
Dialogue from Tony:
Tony Green: The Early Years
Detroit bass legend Tony Green thinking hmmm…… I will become a bass prodigy! (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“Jackie is a great friend, and we covered a lot in the book but there are still so many aspects to my hustle.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green’s book Behind the Wall by Jackie Wallace (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“You know how many great musicians and performers have been in this house (Monica Street, Detroit), man? Ron Banks, the lead singer of The Dramatics, sat right there about 50 years ago, and asked my mama if I could go on the road with them. And before that we had tons of great jazz players over here. A lot of me has never been publicly explained but that’s about to change right now. Let’s get into it.”
“I was born September 22nd, 1956, at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, Michigan. My grandparents were from Calhoun, Mississippi. My biological parents were Rene Shaw and Roy Edward Green. My dad Roy was in the US Air Force in Vietnam (1965-75) and received two Bronze Stars for bravery.”
“Growing up, all my toys were tents, canteens, all army-type stuff. He lived in Roseville but also stayed in Los Angeles and San Antonio when he was home on leave, so when I spent time with him in the summers, we were in all those cities. He unfortunately died at the young age of 42 from the lingering effects of Agent Orange. His wife, my stepmom Ruth, used to torture me emotionally & physically.”
“My biological mom Rene was a pro bowler. She had over 100 trophies. She bowled at the Bowl-O-Drome (Dexter ave, Detroit), W-Y 7 bowling alley (Wyoming ave, Detroit), Thunderbowl (Allen Park; world’s largest bowling alley), Garden Bowl (Woodward ave, Detroit; world’s oldest bowling alley), all over the place, even out of state. I remember as a kid we sometimes used to take the little guy off the top of the trophies and put him on a necklace chain. I love bowling, my mom and I used to play on leagues together.”
Detroit jazz bassist William Austin
“I lived with my mom Rene and my stepdad William Austin. We originally lived at Elmhurst St and Dexter Ave in Detroit. Then in 1964, we moved here to 7 Mile and Livernois, which was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood at the time. Growing up, all my friends were Jewish. I went to Pasteur Elementary (19811 Stoepel St), Hampton Junior High (3900 Pickford st) and Mumford High School (17525 Wyoming ave).”
“But it was here in this house, man, that my love for music happened. I grew up hearing so much great jazz music live at the house and down the street at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge (Detroit; world’s oldest jazz club) that I almost feel guilty that other people didn’t get to experience that growing up.”
Detroit jazz bassist William Austin playing with Lionel Hampton (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“It was an amazing group of jazz musicians here at our house. Sonny Stitt, Lionel Hampton, Esther Philips, Gloria Lynn, Jack McDuff, Earl Klugh, Yusef Lateef, Spanky Wilson, the female pianist Terry Pollard, Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, etc, all used to play downstairs jam sessions here in the basement. It was typically before a set they would be playing at Baker’s or they’d be in town for the weekend and drop by. We used to have BBQ cookouts eating my stepdad’s BBQ and my mom’s famous mac and cheese. Had the hi-fi going in the living room. Used to have a piano in the basement (my 5yr old brother Ricky would play; also my other brother Will Austin III plays guitar). Nobody was drinking alcohol, just playing jazz music. Man, those were the days.”
“My stepdad Will was a phenomenal jazz bassist. William Austin was originally from St. Louis and was self-taught on the bass. He toured with Barry Harris, Sonny Stitt, played a residency with Yusef Lateef at Klein’s Showbar (8540 12th st, Detroit). Eventually, most of the Detroit guys left for New York to work, so my stepdad, who was in the military, played bass in the US Air Force Band.”
“William Austin (February 22, 1932 – April 28, 2020). RIP. Until we meet again.”
“Other than the music, the family, and the great food, we didn’t have shit growing up. My Grandma would put a quilt around a rock and we’d play catch with it. That’s the kind of toys we had. Poverty in one regard, but rich in another. Rich in spirit and laughter and the memories.”
“My mom and her six sisters raised us. A lot of my influences came from home, my aunts, and my first cousin Felix Washington who later played in the band Bostonian with me. But lemme tell you. Growing up in Detroit in the 1960’s and 70’s was the bomb! I love music. We grew up listening to the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Motown. It was a great city to grow up in, safe to walk around, no cellphones.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“Marvin Gaye lived on our corner (3067 W. Outer Drive, Detroit) and he used to throw the football to us. Real cool dude. Originally, Berry Gordy the guy who ran Motown Records, had bought the house for his sister Anna Gordy who was married to Marvin. They did the photos for the What’s Going On Album (1971) in the backyard. One of Marvin’s good friends, Lem Barney, the Detroit Lions football player, used to be over there at his house all the time hanging out.”
“Marvin lived next door to The Temptations road manager (19371 Monica St, Detroit) he’d let us sneak downstairs to look at the famous 5-mike microphone stand and the Temptations uniforms.”
Marvin Gaye in Detroit (photo courtesy of Azalia Hackley)
Tony Green becomes a Bass Prodigy
Detroit bass legend Tony Green with The Dramatics (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“It all started when I went to a talent show at Mumford High School in 1969-70. The very talented Reggie McBride played there, he went on to play with Elton John and a bunch of people. Gene Dunlap was on drums. Amazing the amount of talent from Detroit. The Clark Sisters. James Jamerson Jr was at Mumford but barely showed up. Anyway, when I saw Reggie kick out the jams on the bass, I knew I wanted to be a bass player.”
“My first bass was a Fender, like Jimi Hendrix. I got another Teisco bass from Federals department store (8 Mile and Dequindre, Detroit) when I was 14 years old. I play the bass upside down. My E string is at the bottom. And those old Fender basses are heavy. Later, my bass was a Spector and much lighter.”
“I don’t have any particular brand affinity. I’ll play any bass. I’ve always taken whatever bass I have to Tim Flaharty who used to run Music Castle (Woodward and 13 Mile, Royal Oak), now I take it to his house.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green’s early band Roadwork (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“In 1971, I started playing in bands at 15 years old. My first band was Funk Enterprise, which was a mix of black and white guys, we would play hall parties.”
“Then I played in Eternity. My friend Greg Phillinganes played the keyboards and the moog in Eternity. He later worked with Stevie Wonder, Lionel Ritche, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, he was Michael Jackson’s musical director. Eternity also featured Kerry Campbell (sax), Sidney Chaney (drums), Greg King (trumpet) and Larry King (sax).”
“I kept getting kicked out of bands because I didn’t have equipment. My uncle eventually co-signed for me to get an amp for my bass.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green circa 1969-70 (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“Then I started a band called Roadwork, which exists to this day. Our original lineup was Corey Heath (Drums), Dwayne Nunn (organ), Roc Williams (guitar), Robin Harriston and Brenda Joy (singers), Farley on trumpet, Lenny on sax, and yours truly on bass. The promoter Greg Willingham helped us book shows. He ran a company called Showbiz Kids, they booked teen gigs.”
“Back then, my bands played at The Sentinel (2211 E. Jefferson, Detroit), the Latin Quarter, upstairs at Chin Tiki’s (2121 Cass ave, Detroit), Ethel’s Lounge (7341 Mack ave, Detroit), various VFW halls and high schools, etc.”
17-year-old Tony Green joins The Dramatics
Detroit bass legend Tony Green with The Dramatics (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“In 1974, my band Roadwork was playing Club Ocies (Fenkell and Cherrylawn, Detroit) when I got discovered by The Dramatics lead singers LJ Reynolds and Ron Banks. The club was a gangster-style club owned by a guy named Flukey Stokes, who also owned a poolhall down the street. I used to sell Ron weed and eventually he found out my bass abilities and they hired me on the spot.”
“When I first met him, Ron Banks lived at Plainview and McNichols. Later he moved to a house by the Detroit Zoo. He went to Northern High School and originally wanted to be a baseball player.”
“When I first joined, we used to play the 20 Grand Club (5020 14th st, Detroit) a lot. My first out of state show was the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, California, near San Francisco.”
“We had a 50-seat Trailways bus and would play for thousands of people nightly. Man, it was wild.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green with The Dramatics (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“In 1978, I helped The Dramatics write their only gold record, Do What You Want To Do. I wrote four songs on there.”
“Then Ron Banks and George Clinton (Parliament Funkadelic) and I co-wrote ‘One of Those Funk Thangs’, which was featured on Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair album. It went on to become one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop history.”
“A guy named Armen Boladian (Bridgeport Music) the so-called “sample troll” supposedly owns most of the copyrights to George Clinton’s songs, including that one.”
“The story is that George later signed the rights away to most of his catalog in 1983 to Bridgeport but who knows what happened.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green with The Dramatics gold record (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“From 1980-81, I was also doing stuff with a soul R&B group called Five Special. Me, Ron Banks, Darnell Kimbrough and Baby Ray Johnson put the whole process together.”
“The band was Bryan Banks (Ron’s brother), Steve Boyd, Greg Finley, Steve Harris, and Mike Petillo. These guys could sing. Me, Ron and Baby Ray Johnson (who went to Mumford with me) wrote Why Leave Us Alone. Together we three had a great chemistry for writing. I played bass, Ron sang, and Ray played the piano.”
“In 1980, I had formed a group that featured me, my first cousin Felix Washington (piano), and our friend Doug Poisson (drums and financier). We recorded a song called Keep the Groove. I named our group Bostonian. The band name came after the track was laid down.”
“We recorded that bad boy at United Sound Studios (5840 2nd Ave, Detroit), then made 600 records of it at Archer Recording Pressing Plant (7401 E. Davison, Detroit). A few decades later, that track became a major collector’s item and the centerpiece of Clap City Records (Clapton, East London, England).”
“1983, I recorded a track called When the Cat’s Away with a group called Five O’Clock. My cousin Felix had a groove, I wrote the words.”
“We went to a club called the Blue Chip Lounge (13301 W. McNichols, Detroit) and a group was singing there. They were good but had never recorded anything. So we did and A & B side single and before that we did Watch for the Morning.”
“In the 1980’s, I married Simone English (Bowden), a Detroit photographer. We moved out to Hollywood Hills, California. She was originally Ron Banks’ girl, but she liked me more.”
“That same year, 1985, Ron Banks and I were freebasing (smoking cocaine) at my apartment Vista del Mar (2071 Vista Del Mar st, Unit # 6, Los Angeles, CA). Suddenly, he started acting real weird. I opened a bottle of water for him and he looked at it and muttered ‘I can’t let you kill me like that’. I said ‘What are you talking bout Ron? You just saw me open a brand new bottle’. He got all weirded out and just walked out of the apartment. Bout 15 minutes later he comes back all bloodied. The front of him was shredded, there was blood everywhere, all over my gray carpet, it looked like a murder scene.”
“Apparently, he had scaled a barbed wire fence. He had to get 182 stitches. He almost died in my kitchen. I remember the ambulance tech said five minutes more, he would of bled out because he had severed a major artery.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green and Dramatics lead singer Ron Banks freebasing cocaine in Los Angeles (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“Not long after that, I had a heart attack. I was 29 years old. My enzyme levels were through the roof, they said I needed a triple bypass. While I was in the hospital, Ben Crosby, our manager and the owner of Ben’s Hi Chapparal Club (6683 Gratiot, Detroit), flew out to LA and unexpectedly visited me. He was like an angel at the hospital. You never know who your angels are gonna be.”
“While at the hospital, I wrote a song called I Love The Lord. I taught it to The Dramatics band, and we played it the week after in Toronto and got a standing ovation for it. I eventually recorded it with Huriah Boynton. Later, LJ Reynolds covered it on his gospel album.”
“So, yeah, eventually, I had to quit The Dramatics, man. All the cocaine flowing around everywhere all the time just got to be too crazy. Sugar Bear (Willie Ford) and everyone just getting too tore up and not playing enough music. So, in 1988 I moved back to Detroit for a couple years.”
Tony Green links up with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Death Row Records
Dr. Dre and Detroit bass legend Tony Green (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“In 1993, I was managing David Ruffin Jr. (D-Ruff). David is the son of The Temptations singer David Ruffin, who had recently passed away inside a West Philly crackhouse. I wanted to help out my man, so I hooked him up with opening for The Dramatics.”
“So, we’re out in California doing a show and a female fan sees us perform and invites us to come back out to LA soon. She lived in Los Angeles and claimed to know where all the new rappers hung out, some guys named Dr. Dre. Snoop Dogg and Warren G. She said we should drive out and she’d take us there.”
“So, in February 1993, D-Ruff (David Ruffin Jr.) and I drove out there. Our bright green beater ’72 Impala broke down in Arizona. On the way driving out to California, we listened to a cassette tape of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic for about 17 hours straight, kept flipping sides in the tape deck over and over.”
Dr. Dre’s tape The Chronic
“True to her word, the female fan took us to Glam Slam West (333 S. Boylston St, Los Angeles), a nightclub owned by Prince. While we’re in there, sure enough, D-Ruff notices all the rappers.”
“David goes over and introduces himself, then me, and we meet Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and The D.O. C. All the guys were real cool and they told me that Dr. Dre was looking for a bassist.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green with Snoop Dogg and Death Row Records (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“About a week later, Dr. Dre and I connected and met in the studio. Fortunately, when we met Dre, we took our lady’s brand new ’93 Benz to the meeting. Turned out that Dre had the exact same one but a convertible. Had we taken our beater, we wouldn’t have gotten the gig.”
“He wanted to know how I good I was, so I played about 20 different bass lines in two minutes to his song ‘Nuthin’ but a G Thang’ and he just went wild and offered to hire me at $700/wk to play bass and D-ruff at $250/wk to sing. Every Friday I would get a check from him.”
“Dre would be drumming, he’d give me his drumbeats and I had to layer them with my bass lines. We did this at The Village recording studio.”
Snoop Dogg and Detroit bass legend Tony Green (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“I became the band director and bass player for Death Row Records. I did the bass on Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle album and tons of songs.”
“I created the ‘Gin and Juice’ bassline for Snoop right on the spot.”
“The Doggystyle album was recorded at multiple studios: Larrabee West (8811 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood), Larrabee North (4162 Lankershim blvd, North Hollywood), The Enterprise studio (4620 W. Magnolia, Burbank), and the Village and possibly others.”
“To finish the album, we all stayed in the Larrabee North studio the last 48 hours straight for a marathon session. We ate good, laughed a lot and pushed through. When that album came out, it was the first debut release to enter the Billboard charts at # 1. The album release party was in November ’93 on a 165-foot yacht in Marina del Ray. I decided not to go, which turned out to be a good idea, because it got chaotic.”
“I also played bass on some tracks for DJ Quik. We recorded those at Skip Saylor’s Studio in Los Angeles.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green and Dr. Dre (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“At one point, Dre had on ankle tether and couldn’t leave his house, so we partied over there a lot. His house was in a beautiful gated sub called Mountain View Estates in Calabasas, California.”
“We recorded there too, he had an SSL 24-track mixing board and full in-house studio. Wild parties nonstop, lots of weed smoking, I’d be cooking shrimp on the grill. Warren G and his uncle Wron G were also real cool and would be hanging around but Warren, although he was Dre’s stepbrother, was signed with Def Jam not Death Row.”
“I hooked Death Row up with a lot of talented people. My wife Simone became the official Death Row photographer.”
“Dre needed a guitarist, so I introduced him to Detroit guitarist, Ricky Rouse. Back in the 60’s, a young 7-year-old Ricky played guitar while 11-year-old Stevie Wonder played piano, the guy is an incredibly talented guitarist. He had also done some disco songs with Bohannon. Ricky went to Norhern High School in Detroit but dropped out in ’72 to tour with Undisputed Truth.”
“Eventually, Snoop found out I had been in The Dramatics and wanted to meet them, so I made it happen, which helped reignite the career of The Dramatics.”
“On the spot, I called LJ Reynolds for Snoop. LJ answers saying ‘Mr. Green, I heard you hit the big time’ and I handed Snoop the phone, Snoop says ‘Is this really LJ Reynolds? Can you sing Key to the World?’ so LJ busted it out and Snoop went wild.”
“This led to them collaborating on the song Doggy Dogg World on Snoop’s album Doggystyle. The music video for that was fun as hell, too. We had all the Blaxploitation stars there: Pam Grier, Rudy Ray Moore, Ron O’Neal, Fred Williamson, and Huggy Bear and Rerun (Fred Berry) from Soul Train.”
LG Reynolds, Huggy Bear, Pam Grier, and Detroit bass legend Tony Green (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“And here’s a fun fact for you: Snoop Dogg’s dad, Vernell Varnado, was my mailman in Detroit! For years, he used to bring me my ASCAP royalty checks.”
“In 1985, Snoop lived here in Detroit with his dad (11398 Whitehill St, Detroit) and Snoop worked at the McDonald’s on Greenfield and 8 Mile.”
“Dr. Dre had never met George Clinton. So one day, George was in Studio B at The Village, and Dre wanted to meet him. I told him I knew George like a father and Dre seemed skeptical, so I walked down there and peeked in the room. As soon as he sees me, George says ‘I knew somebody had permission to be funkin’ like that!’. I tell him about Dre, George asked me “they got anything down there?” (drugs). I say no. George had mostly been living at his farm in the Irish Hills (Brooklyn, Michigan) smoking crack in a house owned by Armen the sample troll. So, I walked George down the hallway and hooked up Mr. Parliament Funkadelic himself with Dr. Dre and the rest is history.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green and Pfunk’s own George Clinton (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“In 1994, I produced two songs on the Above the Rim soundtrack. It was the track CPO’s Just So Ya No. The co-producer on it was Carl “Butch” Small. The other one was Mi Monie Rite by Lord G. Butch’s son DJ Los did the beat for Lord G. Butch was another Detroit guy I brought to Death Row. Butch was a master percussionist with The Dramatics.”
“Overall, I mean Dr. Dre is a genius. You have got to give the dude credit for that. Because of him, I played bass on the Arsenio Hall Show, MTV, Saturday Night Live, the Magic Johnson Show, etc. Also, every single record that Dre has done has gone either gold or platinum. Eminem, who Dre sponsored and nurtured, has gone Diamond six times, making Eminem the number one most awarded musician for singles in RIAA history.”
“My bass is on Gin and Juice, the Regulate G-Funk Mix, California Love, Murder Was the Case, the Dogg Pound, Lady of Rage’s Afro Puff, and a lot more man.”
“I also played the bass for Shaquille O’Neal’s single Biological Didn’t Bother (Remix) that was produced by Warren G.”
Shaquille O’Neal & Detroit bass legend Tony Green (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“In 1995, I played the bass on Coolio’s song Rollin with the Homies. It was featured on the soundtrack to Clueless.”
“Coolio was a cool dude. RIP. Another one gone too soon.”
“We did Da Five Footaz-Walk Away. It was on the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack.”
“As for 2Pac, I never actually met 2Pac but my basslines are on California Love.”
“However, I did meet Biggie Smalls (the Notorious BIG) once. It was about 1995, I met Biggie at DTW (the Detroit Airport). He was a big and tall dude. Real cool guy, we talked about the music industry and Detroit. Biggie loved Detroit (‘my Detroit players’).”
The infamous Death Row chair from Suge Knight’s office at Can-Am
“At one point, I was in Kingston, Jamaica helping the billionaire Josef Bogdanovich produce reggae artists like Lady Saw. Joe is a reggae fanatic who runs a company called DownSound Entertainment. His grandparents were Croatian immigrants who founded StarKist Tuna.”
“Joe is also an executive producer who also helped save Reggae Sumfest, the largest reggae event in the Caribbean.”
“After Death Row, I went on tour with my man Warren G from 1996-98. Warren is another great guy. He and Snoop and Nate Dogg are from Long Beach. We used to record at Warren’s house sometimes in Lakewood, just outside Long Beach. He started his own label, G-Funk Records, that was distributed by Def Jam.”
“When I went on tour with him, we did the Spring Break parties in Lake Havasu, then went on an overseas tour. Germany, Switzerland, France, went to the top of the Eiffel Tower. My favorite was Japan. I had gone there twice with The Dramatics, then came back with Warren G. He was huge in London, and we did the MTV ‘Live in London’ show.”
“At the Billboard Music Awards, me, Warren G and Nate Dogg had “Big Mike” as a security guard. He later became an actor. His real name was Michael Clarke Duncan. He was in the Green Mile, Slammin Salmon, Armageddon, etc.”
“Big Mike had been working for Vassal Benford, a Detroit keyboard player who moved to LA in the late 80’s. Unfortunately, Big Mike is gone now. RIP.”
Michael Clarke Duncan, aka bodyguard Big Mike (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“Warren’s manager was his uncle, Wrong G (Ron Griffin). Wron G was 6’4” tall former special ops US Marine Corps soldier and the real deal. He never took off his sunglasses and he wore a long coat like Shaft.”
“Couple years ago, in 2020, Snoop Dogg came to Detroit. Where T Green at? We went and hung out with him at the Fillmore (2115 Woodward Ave, Detroit) for a few hours after the show. We all smoked blunts and talked about the good old days. A video of him and I singing there went viral on Instagram.”
“Yep, our music has rattled a lot of trunks over the years, man. Rattled a lot of skulls and bank accounts, too.”
The Detroit Legacy
Detroit bass legend Tony Green (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“I came back to Detroit. Started laying down some tracks at a favorite studio of mine, Sound Suite Studios (14750 Puritan ave) which had been open since 1975. It closed around 2000. We had also recorded the Five Special album here. I did a lot of recording here over the years.”
“I signed a deal with Bellmark Records to produce my album Organized Kaos Hour 1. It’s a series that I’m still working on.”
“I played bass for two tracks on Robbie Robertson’s album Music for the Native Americans.”
“Around about 1995 or so, I let Sick Notes (Dewitt and Pep) record at Sound Suite. They ended up writing two songs for Eminem.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“In 2001, we did an album with Westbound Records called Hyped Up Westbound Soljaz. It was for Pfunk and George Clinton. The Westbound label was started in 1968 by Armen Boladian. There was another album called The Streetz are Paved with Green that I cut for Westbound but it was never released.”
“Also in 2001-2002, I was in the Eminem movie 8 Mile but unfortunately my scene got cut.”
“I played bass for Detroit rapper Big Herk’s Rock Bottom crew.”
“The Detroit rapper Mersiless Amir is featured on my new album along with several other amazing artists.”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“Then in 2010, I met the yin to my yang. Dr. Gail Soo Hoo, aka: the Flue Doctor. She had been first chair at Northwestern High School, which is saying something because several phenomenal musicians came outta there, including Ray Parker Jr. (1971 grad; he did the Ghostbusters theme song).”
“2016, we did Slight Return (Mark Kassa’s band) with George Clinton.”
“I used to record at Studio A (5619 N. Beech Daly, Dearborn Heights) when my engineer Steve Capp was there. Now he’s over at 54 Soundrecording studio (Ferndale) so I’m over there now. 54 Sound is owned by a great guy named Joel Martin. Eminem and The Bass Brothers also record there.”
Dr. Gail Soo Hoo aka: the Flute Doctor (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
Tony Green The Man
Detroit bass legend Tony Green (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“Some bands and musicians I’m a fan of are Jimi Hendrix (purple haze, changes), Chick Corea, Elton John, Grand Funk Railroad, Graham Central Station, WDRQ radio, etc. I love Anita Baker’s album Rapture. I love Chris Squire’s bass talents on Roundabout by Yes.”
“Some of my personal favorite bass players are Larry Graham, Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten, and the Detroit bassists James Jamerson (my all-time fav), “Fast Eddie” Watkins Jr (he got started on The Temptations 1973 album Masterpiece), Ralphe Armstrong, and Lamont Johnson.”
“My partner McKayla Prew (talented new singer) and I run Hyped Up Live Sessions, which is a monthly livestream music jam that we record live at my studio inside the Russell Industrial Center (1600 Clay St, Detroit).”
Detroit bass legend Tony Green and Snoop Dogg hanging out in Detroit (photo courtesy of Tony Green)
“The Dramatics singer LJ Reynolds is still alive. We still talk and collaborate regularly. LJ rehearses every Wednesday in my studio at the Russell.”
“Right now, I have what I call The Vault, which is a collection of over 2,000 songs (including 200 reel-to-reel masters) that I’ve created in my lifetime. Some of these are on my new album Organized Kaos Hour 3, check it out.”
“I’m actively working on a follow-up book about my life, which is being written by Detroit author Jenn Goeddeke.”
“As for the bass? Why is the bass important? Well, many great groups are driven by the bass and drums. A good bass player will let the song breathe and flex. And you got to have stage presence, meaning make your lives performances interesting, don’t just sit there staring down at your shoes.”
“My advice to young aspiring musicians is to keep in mind that most of the music industry is about who you know. So get out there, network, make connections, and always try to help other people. But just remember to give proper credit where credit is due. And don’t listen to your friends, just keep playing the music you like and honing your talent every single day. And above all, never wish you were somebody else. Always stay true to you internally eternally.”
*Special thank you to Book Beat & Street Corner Music for allowing us in your stores*
Wayne Kramer probably shouldn’t be alive right now.
A normal human would’ve folded up and exploded decades ago from a pulverizing combination of “Hard Stuff,” like hard music, hard drugs, hard living and hard lessons. Thankfully, however, Wayne is here with us, alive and well enough to tell the ongoing tale of his fascinating existence.
Wayne Kramer and his Detroit rock band the MC5 changed rock music by cranking the dial to totally immersive no-holds-barred high-intensity levels of DNA-mutating volume and they’re also widely credited with inadvertently creating what was later labeled as the genre of ‘punk music’.
While the band itself disintegrated in 1972 in a cyclone of heroin, revolutionary Sinclair politics, disenchantment and becoming alienated and disconnected from each other, the MC5’s music has withstood the brutal and purifying test of time. They came, they saw, they melted faces with blistering full-body knockout attack music and helped forge Detroit’s enduring sobriquet, Detroit Rock City.
It has been said that listening to the MC5 live was like having an out-of-body experience, like exorcising daemonic barnacles and freeing your soul, like a psychedelic journey to pre-birth regression, a glorious stripping away while being thrashed to the point where you suddenly Wake Up, Fully Emerged.
I’m sitting here right now with Brother Wayne Kramer in the back room at Book Beat bookstore.
Wayne is in town from Los Angeles and bookstore owner Cary Loren, formerly of Ann Arbor arthouse band Destroy All Monsters, has kindly given us a fun space to chat.
We’re discussing Wayne’s life and memoir ‘The Hard Stuff,’ which will be published on August 14th by Da Capo Press.
Later this year, Wayne is going on a 35-city tour with his band MC50 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of MC5’s Kick Out The Jams. Their tour will culminate in an October 27th show at the newly renovated Fillmore Detroit.
Wayne is also a prominent solo recording artist and has done countless collaborations with people like David Peel, Johnny Thunders, Don Was, etc.
“Parts of my life have been written about extensively, especially my time in the MC5. Less so my time in prison and my work with Jail Guitar Doors. Just wanted to have a record from my perspective, straight from the horse’s mouth.”
“I wanted to understand myself better and chronicle the realizations. To sort out the order that things happened in and review some of the stupendously terrible things I’ve done in my life. For years, my friends have prodded me to write a book but I could never figure out how to end it, since the story isn’t finished. The arrival of my son Francis, who is turning five soon, the whole life I’ve lived up to his arrival was one life, so now I can begin the other life. If I die tomorrow, I want my son to have a record of my life straight from me not vicariously from news articles.”
“I started writing the book in 2006. Started just casually jotting down thoughts and memories in a notebook. A lot of stuff was in the front of my thoughts and therefore easily accessible. Then I got about forty 3 x 5 cards and put them on a corkboard and created a chronology of events.”
“After a while I had the shaping of what looked like an actual book on my hands, so we engaged an agent and secured a publisher. I’m a musician. Telling stories is my business and lifelong passion and it’s always a pleasure. The book was completed in November 2017.”
MC5: The Motor City 5
Born April 30th, 1948, Wayne Kramer was the founder and guitarist of rock band The Motor City Five, which was later shortened to MC5 in honor of being more in tune with the Detroit auto industry.
Wayne started the band in 1963 at Lincoln Park High School in Lincoln Park, Michigan, a Downriver suburb of Detroit.
At the time, Wayne was the band leader of The Bounty Hunters. He met Fred Smith of The Vibratones and Fred soon merged his band with Wayne’s band into The Bounty Hunters. They played venues like The Crystal Bar on Michigan Ave & Central in Southwest Detroit until changing their name to The Motor City 5 in the Fall 1964.
The MC5 consisted of:
Wayne Kramer guitar, Rob Tyner vocals, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith guitar, Michael Davis bass, and Dennis ‘Machine Gun’ Thompson drums.
“It started off innocently enough with ‘Hey, any kids want to be in a band with me?’ Ultimately, we ended up with the MC5.”
“The MC5 started at Helen and Gregory avenues in Lincoln Park, Michigan. Tyner lived 4 blocks away, Dennis lived 10 blocks, Fred lived 10 blocks in another direction. My Mom’s house was the center for all of us and she kindly let us practice in the basement.”
“Rob Tyner and I could draw. Rob’s friend Gary Grimshaw could draw chrome, the finish on hot rod cars. So, Gary and Rob ending up designing a lot of our handbills and posters, especially the Grande Ballroom ones. Rob was indeed a gifted artist and cartoonist, not many people know that.”
“And yes, it’s true, Rob reinvented everything. He nicknamed Fred ‘Sonic’, shortened our name to the MC5, nicknamed Dennis ‘Machine Gun’, even renamed himself from Bob Derminer to Rob Tyner. He was a very creative man.”
“The MC5 used to play everywhere: school cafetoriums, dances, record hops, bars, clubs, outdoors, indoors, sideways, upside down, you name it, we were there. When you love to play music, it doesn’t matter where you play it. You just establish a good band and put your 10,000 hours in playing your asses off anywhere-anyway you can.”
“The MC5 played 400-500 performances over the lifespan of the band. I was 16-20 years old when all this happened, my formative years. At 19 or 20, you’re pretty crazy since your brain isn’t done growing. You’re basically insane until 30.”
“We all have powerful experiences and changes at that age and to be in the center of larger forces at that time like the youth culture movement, government oppression, phonetaps, the FBI building a file on us (yes, I have a copy of the file), was just overwhelming. I remember when I caught my federal coke case, the officer said to me, ‘Kramer, we got shit on you going back to the Sixties’.
“What set the MC5 apart from our contemporaries is we addressed the audiences concerns directly. Since we all shared the same concerns, we felt it our responsibility to help voice these concerns and voice them LOUDLY.”
“We were a rock band in a time when rock music came of age and we were a part of a community of young people in agreement to reject the established ideas of how life should be. The hypocrisy and corruption we saw was unbearable as a community. We were being forced to fight a war 30,000 miles away when there was no direct threat to the United States. It was illegal, it was immoral and America, which claimed to stand for equal rights, didn’t give equal rights to all citizens, only a chosen select few.”
“And even 50 years ago, we felt and knew that weed was less toxic than the government claimed. We were commenting directly on this stuff and we were the only band doing so heart to heart, face to face. You felt our music, boy, and you could never un-feel it. Hearing the MC5 live touched you deeply and forever.”
“In terms of people considering the MC5 and The Stooges as the “godfathers” of punk music, I can see where you can connect the dots. The Clash, The Damned, The Ramones, etc, when you asked all those early punk bands who they listened to and were inspired by, almost all of them say the MC5 and The Stooges. To me “punk” has always been around, we just didn’t use that expression. Beethoven, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, all those guys were punks in the sense that they had to reinvent music for their generations. It’s important to have your own sound and be original.”
“The MC5 was not frilly, not snobby, not elitist, it’s just in your face, grab you by the throat, rock and roll.”
“MC5 played opening night at the Grande, Detroit’s psychedelic ballroom, thanks to Russ Gibb. The Grande was a magical place.”
“We all lived together in the same house as a band. We lived in Detroit, then we moved to Ann Arbor to a place called the Hill Street House for a while, then we had a house in Hamburg, Michigan on Hall Road. It was not far from Hamburg Lake. Beautiful, remote spread in the middle of 10-acres of wooded land, just absolutely spectacular. We loved it. We were a bunch of maniac musicians. You could run around with no clothes on, shoot guns, smoke weed, do whatever you wanted to do, it was great.”
“Our bassist Mike Davis wrote a memoir about his life and MC5 and many stories in Mike’s book are consistent with mine, at least, the fundamental facts. I don’t blame Mike for some of the stuff that was written. I’m sure I was an absolute nightmare to be around. The bad behavior was rampant and eventually, the MC5’s shared creative vision had disintegrated into drugs. Heroin was all-pervasive in Detroit back then and we were young musicians, so everywhere we went, it was already there waiting for us, in our face, you couldn’t escape it.”
“Rob tried quitting the MC5 for 2-3 years. Every year, he’d make a declaration that he didn’t want to be in the band anymore, but he never left. Finally, he and Fred got into a fistfight, and he said he’d had enough. Our last show was New Year’s Eve 1972 at the Grande. I walked off stage mid-show and that was that. The end of an era.”
The MC5 Eat LSD with Timothy Leary at Tim’s House in California
“On March 23rd, 1969, we played a free concert in Provo Park. Timothy Leary was there, he liked our show and invited us back to his house in the Berkeley Hills.”
“He had all this liquid LSD that we poured into a big bottle of dark red wine and we drank LSD wine with him in front of a roaring fire in his living room, while his mother-in-law was there!”
“The band wanted to go out carousing. I wanted to stay with Leary and have the total LSD experience with the guru and then the funniest thing happened.”
“Machine Gun Thompson and I are sitting in front of the fire with Tim’s mother-in-law, Tim walks in with his wife Rosemary and announces “welp, we’re going to bed, you guys have a good night.” He walks away, Machine Gun and I look at each other and I’m thinking, ‘Whoaaaa. I’m tripping my brains out with Timothy Leary’s mother-in-law’. Then I say to Dennis, ‘Maybe we should go back to the hotel.’ Dennis agrees and he somehow drives us back to the hotel.”
Wayne’s Favorite Authors
“Dozens of favorites. I read a lot. They run the gamut: Philip Roth, Christopher Hitchens, Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Hemingway, Sam Harris, Luc Sante, etc. My son is going to be five soon and he’s reading some elemental stuff already. I told him that the whole world will open up to you through reading. Plus, you can travel in time through books.”
“The MC5 was formed during our teen years when we were young and trying to break out and establish our own identity beyond our parents, which is important.”
“I had a father that abandoned our family when I was little. I was an angry little boy who grew into an even angrier young man. I thought changing my name to “Wayne Kramer” was the perfect revenge, since he would never share in my glory.”
“Later, in my 40’s, I met my father. He was a community activist in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania and he was in the hospital. We built a relationship, I mean you can’t dial it back and recover what was lost to time, but I got to have a more mature perspective on this man whom I was biologically connected to.”
“He had been a U.S. Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. He came back profoundly damaged and treated what we now called “PTSD” with alcohol, which he said kept the daemons at a distance. It didn’t stop the endless horrors, but it helped create a cloudy buffer.”
“The hole in my development as a boy, not having a model of what manhood is, being left to deal with challenges, responsibilities, dangers without a father was very difficult.”
“My Mother did a great job as a single working mom. She’s my hero to this day. I also had 2 younger sisters. My Mom raised us three kids on her own. Single working mothers are the hardest working humans on planet earth.”
Wayne Helps Iggy & The Stooges Get Signed
“I was responsible for getting The Stooges a record contract with Elektra Records. Danny Fields asked me if I knew any other group like the MC5. I said ‘No Danny, there’s nobody like the MC5. But, you should see our brother band The Psychedelic Stooges.’”
“We loved Iggy and The Stooges, all of us hung out together, got high together, listened to the same free jazz music. Before then, Iggy was a drummer in a great blues band called The Prime Movers.”
“I actually tried recruiting him into the MC5 one time but he left for a brief stay in Chicago with The Prime Movers. Iggy and I are still great friends to this day and I’m proud of how successful he is.”
Wayne Gets Arrested During the Detroit Riots
“In July 1967, we were living on Warren and Forest in Detroit by Wayne State University and we had a telescope in our upstairs window. The Riots kicked off and the cops saw the telescope and thought we were snipers.”
“Next thing I know, my doors being busted down and there’s a U.S. Army tank pointing its canon at our house! It’s in the street, right outside our front door! The cops swarmed in, slammed us down and took us to 1300 Beaubien Street, the Detroit Police HQ. They eventually let us go but it was an experience that stuck with me.”
On Being Incarcerated in America
From 1975-77, Wayne Kramer did time at Lexington Federal Prison in Lexington, KY for selling cocaine. The experience had a profound and negative impact on him.
MC5 bassist Mike Davis, Stooges roadie Hiawatha Bailey, writer William S. Burroughs, actor Peter Lorre, musicians Red Rodney, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, etc, all did drug time at Lexington.
“Going to prison is a traumatic experience. You are discovering for the first time what it means to not have liberty, to not be free, to be totally under the control of systems and people.”
“You never feel safe. You’re surrounded in very close quarters by dangerous people with mental health issues constantly. You have no power over your own life. The sort of helplessness and hopelessness you experience in prison is impossible to accurately communicate unless you yourself have experienced it directly.”
“The prison experience is embarrassing and shameful and I don’t know anyone whose come out better. Prison has never helped anyone, myself included. It’s a medieval concept that just lives on and on and on and on. 90% of inmates can be held accountable for breaking the social contract in their communities but imprisoning people runs against a sense of fairness, which really doesn’t exist in America.”
Jail Guitar Doors USA
In 1978, London punk band The Clash wrote a song about Wayne Kramer called ‘Jail Guitar Doors’. That song title served as inspiration for Wayne Kramer, his wife Margaret Kramer and his friend Billy Bragg in naming his non-profit Jail Guitar Doors USA in 2008.
“Jail Guitar Doors is a non-profit with a mission to help rehabilitate prison inmates by teaching them to express themselves positively through music.”
“Since my release, I’ve watched the prison population rise for over 40 years. There were 350,000 people in state and federal prisons combined back then. Today, in the United States, we have 2.3 million people in prisons.”
“This tragedy has deeply affected every single community in the country. Sending people to prison is not a deterrent. You come out worse, not better. With Jail Guitar Doors, we try to mitigate the damage by helping the individual rehab through music and change for the better.”
“Just think about it: 600,000 prisoners are released every year. Who do you want standing in line with you at the store? Someone bitter, defeated, revengeful or somebody who has hope and music?”
“Earlier today, we took some local musicians to the Ryan Reentry Center in Detroit to establish a songwriting workshop. Today we wore a song about freedom, we helped inmates there talk about childhood trauma and forgiveness. Doing the work itself is the reward.”
“I don’t ever expect to see true justice reform in my lifetime. It’s like turning the Titanic away from the iceberg. But we will continue doing what we can to help.”
Detroit to Los Angeles
“I’ve been in L.A. for 25 years, it suits my activities. I pay the rent by writing film and TV music. You have to go where your job skills are marketable.”
“Most of the year the climate is spectacular, but it’s been very hot lately. Great community in L.A., lot of friends there.”
“Jail Guitar Doors is based there. We’re on 10 prison yards in California and we have acoustic guitars in 120 prisons in America.”
“I visit Detroit often to see family and friends and play gigs and the city will always be in my heart forever.”
1963-Wayne Kramer forms The Bounty Hunters. Fred Smith merges his band The Vibratones with Wayne’s band.
1963-Gary Grimshaw moves to apartment building 633 Prentis St, Detroit. Michael Davis moves to the same building and Rob Tyner’s girlfriend lives across the hall from him. Mike meets Rob and gradually becomes the bassist for the MC5.
December 1963-The Bounty Hunters play The Crystal Bar (Michigan Ave & Central St, Detroit)
Fall 1964-The Bounty Hunters are re-named The Motor City 5
May 1965-Rob Tyner shortens the bands name to MC5
1966-MC5 move to the Warren Forest neighborhood in Detroit’s Cass Corridor near Wayne State University at apartment (659 W. Canfield)
September 1966-Plum Street (Detroit’s Haight-Ashbury psychedelic district) opens
October 7th, 1966-Russ Gibb opens the Grande Ballroom. MC5 plays opening night.
October 1966-LSD made illegal
November 20th, 1966-MC5 & Velvet Underground play ‘Carnaby Street Fun Festival’ @ Michigan State Fairgrounds, Detroit
1967-MC5 move to Detroit Artists Workshop building and live upstairs (1252 W. Forest) and The Lodge at Warren
1967-John Sinclair morphs Artists Workshop into Trans-Love Energy Collective
April 30, 1967-Trans Love produces Love-In concert on Belle Isle @ Remick Music Shell. MC5 plays for 6,000 people. The Outlaws motorcycle gang starts riot.
Summer 1967-The Stooges live at first Stooge house (1324 Forest Ct, Ann Arbor)
June 9th, 1967-MC5 blow main act Cream offstage at the Grande.
July 1967-Detroit Riots
August 1967-John Sinclair becomes manager of the MC5
Halloween 1967-The Psychedelic Stooges first show ever @ UofM Student Union
November 22nd, 1967-The Who play Southfield High School
November 24-26, 1967-The Fugs & MC5 play the Grande
January 4th, 1968-Russ Gibb finances the MC5 recordings of Looking At You and Borderline @ United Sound System studios (5840 2nd Ave, Detroit). Gary Grimshaw designs the cover. Jeep Holland’s A-Square label releases only 500 copies.
February 23rd, 1968-Jimi Hendrix, MC5 & Soft Machine play the Masonic in Detroit
March 3rd, 1968-The Stooges first play the Grande
April 11th, 1968-MC5’s first-ever show with The Stooges @ UofM Union Ballroom
May 1968-Trans-Love move from Detroit to Ann Arbor’s Hill Street House (1510 and 1520 Hill Street). MC5 join the commune.
July 1968-MC5 play free concert at the West Park bandshell in Ann Arbor
August 25th, 1968-MC5 play Lincoln Park, Chicago during riot
September 7th, 1968-JC Crawford first introduces the MC5
September 21st, 1968-Danny Fields sees MC5 live at the Grande
September 22nd, 1968-Danny Fields sees The Stooges @ the Union Ballroom, Ann Arbor
September 1968-Danny Fields gets Elektra Records to sign both bands: MC5 sign to Elektra for $20,000 and The Stooges sign for $5,000. Elektra is known as the label of The Doors.
October 30-31, 1968-MC5 record debut live album ‘Kick Out the Jams’ at the Grande Ballroom. The Stooges were the kicker act. Free show.
November 1st, 1968-John Sinclair creates White Panther Party based on idea from Pun Plamondon
November 1968-The Stooges move to The Fun House (2666 Packard rd, Ann Arbor). MC5 hang out here frequently. Nico lives here for a bit.
December 12-14, 1968-MC5 plays on bill with Velvet Underground for 3 days in Boston
December 23rd, 1968-MC5 opens for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown @ Olympia
January 4th, 1969-MC5’s Rob Tyner is on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine
February 1969-Detroit’s famous Hudson’s department store refuses to stock MC5’s albums. In response to this, MC5 runs a full-page ad entitled ‘Fuck Hudson’s’ in local magazines The Fifth Estate, Ann Arbor Argus, The Sun. As a result, Hudson’s department stores pulls all Elektra Records albums from their shelves.
March 1969-Creem Magazine debuts
March 1969-Elektra Records drops the MC5
May 1969-John Cale brings The Stooges to NYC to produce their first album
June 1969-MC5 sign to Atlantic Records and get a hefty $65,000 advance
October 18th, 1969-Led Zeppelin, MC5, Grand Funk play Olympia in Detroit
January 15th, 1970-MC5 release their 2nd album ‘Back in the USA’
May 1970-MC5 move from Hill Street House (Ann Arbor) out to Hamburg, Michigan
August 3rd, 1970-MC5 @ Mt. Clemens Pop Festival in Sportsman Park
August 7-9th, 1970-MC5 and The Stooges play Goose Lake Music Festival (200,000 people)
April 1971-White Panther Party dissolves
July 6th, 1971-MC5 release ‘High Time’ album
1972-Rob Tyner and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith get into a fistfight
December 31, 1972-MC5’s last show ever. Grande Ballroom. Wayne Kramer is so disgusted, he leaves mid-show.
MC5’s proposed 4th album, ‘Live on Saturn’ never comes to fruition.
1975-Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith starts Sonic’s Rendezvous Band
1975-77-Wayne Kramer does time at Lexington Federal Prison. Fellow inmates include Mike Davis and Hiawatha Bailey
“Ding!” the elevator door opens. I step inside. Whoosh! The marble-paneled elevator cruises fast up to the 40th floor of Ally Detroit Center, tallest office building in the State of Michigan and the 2nd tallest building in Detroit.
I spill out onto the 40th floor, immediately enraptured by the fantastic vantage of Detroit’s cityscape, including spectacular views of the Guardian Building, Detroit’s main US Post Office and the Ambassador Bridge.
Photo by Ryan M. Place
619 feet tall. 43 floors. I’m almost at the very top of the building, here inside the world headquarters of the Dickinson Wright law firm where Dennis Archer is Chairman Emeritus.
Dickinson Wright has 450 lawyers in over 20 offices in the United States, helping people in 40 different areas of law.
The title is based on the slogan his mayoral campaign manager, David Axelrod, created for him. Axelrod later became President Obama’s chief strategist, senior advisor and CNN commentator.
Mr. Archer’s memoir is a fascinating, thorough and riveting account of his incredible life and career.
Sitting here now with me, Dennis is soft spoken, careful, measured, brilliant, a natural tactician and we have an absorbing 2.5-hour long conversation, going well beyond the initial 45 minutes we originally intended.
Photo by Ryan M. Place
Dennis is a patient listener and thoughtful conversationist. Listening to people, rather than telling them what they want, has always been his leadership style.
Archer was a popular Mayor because he was perceived by most people, regardless of political affiliation, as someone who truly cares about the city of Detroit and its residents. Speaking with him, you can tell his concern is sincere and genuine and not some contrived act for the cameras.
Widely admired for his strong moral philosophy, Archer has spent his life relentlessly focused on the value of education and encouraging people to learn as much and as often as they can to help improve their lives and communities.
Having attended Wayne State University, Western Michigan University and Detroit College of Law, Dennis Archer went on to become:
A husband, father, teacher, Michigan Supreme Court Justice, partner at Dickinson Wright law firm, two-term Mayor of the City of Detroit, the first African American president of the Michigan Bar Association and of the 400,000-member American Bar Association, president of the National League of Cities and creator of the Dennis W. Archer Foundation, where he’s given out $1.5 million dollars in scholarships to students.
Dennis Archer is a hard-working, dedicated, no-nonsense, man of action and this is his tale.
Photo by Ryan M. Place
Born New Year’s Day 1942 at Rogers Hospital in Detroit, Dennis Archer lived here until 1947, when he moved to Cassopolis, a rural village in Southwest Michigan.
Dennis grew up poor in a house with an outhouse and he bathed in a big metal tub every Saturday night.
Cassopolis Court House
His father’s family was from North Carolina and Logan County, Ohio and he had one arm, a 3rd grade education and was an extremely hard worker. His mother’s family was from Virginia and both were very influential in Dennis’ life.
Cassopolis was small town USA. Cat litter was invented here in 1947 by resident Ed Lowe. Dennis grew up here listening to doo wop, caddying & golfing and working at the local pickle factory. In 1959, he moved back to Detroit after high school graduation and enrolled at Wayne State University.
MLK in Detroit c. 1963 (photo courtesy of Detroit Archives)
He was a drummer in the school marching band when they played for President JFK in Washington, D.C. in 1961. Two years later, Dennis marched with 125,000 people led by Martin Luther King Jr. down Woodward Avenue in Downtown Detroit when he gave his first ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in 1963.
Dennis eventually transferred from Wayne State to Western Michigan University to become a teacher. He graduated and returned to Detroit where he met fellow teacher and future wife Trudy DunCombe, an EMU grad, in 1965.
After that, he enrolled in the Detroit College of Law, got married and became involved in the fields of law and politics in Detroit.
Kresge’s Department Store (photo courtesy of Detroit Archives)
“What do I like most about Detroit? Everything. I was born here. I remember my first five years on earth here. My dad sent my mother, who was pregnant with me, from Cassopolis to Detroit to be born in a hospital. Cassopolis had no hospital and our house didn’t have a telephone.”
“The first place I lived in Detroit was my Aunt Hattie’s on McDougall Street, a few blocks down from Joe Louis’ mother’s house, they lived at 2100 McDougall. Then we moved to my Grandma’s on Rivard and Lafayette in the Black Bottom neighborhood. We’d walk downtown to Kresge’s Department Store frequently. Detroit has always been a fascinating and wonderful place to me.”
Writing His Memoir
Photo by Ryan M. Place
“I did not keep diary or journal but my wife kept news articles. I wrote the book after having been encouraged by a number of people who finally convinced me that it might be very helpful and enlightening to my sons and grandsons and the general public to have a record of my experiences.”
“My grandsons were 11 and 8 years old when I started writing the book in August 2015. Took me a while to figure out how best to write a book without a lot of emphasis on “I”. If you pass by a fencepost and happen to see a turtle sitting on top, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”
Eliabeth Ann Atkins (photo courtesy of Atkins Greenspan)
“By working with a co-author, Elizabeth Ann Atkins, she could interview the people who were a part of Detroit and my life and they could share their true feelings with her. The book was finally published in December 2017.”
People of Color
Dennis Archer playing golf (photo courtesy of Doug Ashley)
“People of color used to not be able to join the Detroit Golf Club until Coleman Young helped change that. Cardinal Szoka nominated Mayor Young and he became a Social Member in 1986, which paved the way for other people of color to join like Walt Watkins, Walt Douglas, S. Martin Taylor and myself, etc.”
The Detroit Riots
Detroit Riots 1967 (photo courtesy of Detroit Archives)
“The Rebellion of 1967 increased my motivation to be a lawyer. In Spring 1966, I started at Detroit College of Law. I taught school during the day and attended law school at night and graduated January 1970.”
“In 1967, I was a student law clerk at the firm of Damon J. Keith. I got married on June 17, 1967. My father-in-law and I liked to play golf, so I picked him up the morning of July 23rd . We were coming home, and we could see smoke in the air, hear sirens. A lot of sirens, more than usual. Distant yet deafening. I dropped him off and drove home to our apartment. That’s when Trudy told me how things had started.”
“Gov. Romney and Mayor Cavanagh asked for troops to come in. We lost 47 lives and over 7,000 people were arrested and were housed on Belle Isle.”
“Detroit Recorder’s Court judges put a call out for all lawyers to come out and help the people held in custody by explaining to them the legal process and what they were charged with. I watched Judge Keith’s firm participate in providing people legal assistance and I saw how important lawyers were in the process of protecting people’s rights and the whole experience really increased my motivation to be a lawyer.”
Being Mayor of Detroit
Mayor Dennis Archer (photo courtesy of Detroit)
On January 1st, 1994, Dennis Archer became the 67th Mayor of Detroit, which at the time was America’s 8th largest city. He served two terms and ended his service on December 31st, 2001.
Dennis inherited a monumental task of revitalizing the city. He experienced:
photo by Ryan M. Place
General Motors purchasing the Renaissance Center which changed the city in a very positive way.
The Nancy Kerrigan knee bashing at Joe Louis Arena.
The creation of 3 casino’s in Detroit: MGM, Motor City and Greektown.
Allowing Detroit Electronic Music Festival (aka: DEMF, Techfest) to start in Hart Plaza. This festival continues today and is known as Movement.
The creation and flourishing of Campus Martius.
Encouraging Peter Karmanos to move his Compuware Corporation from Farmington Hills to downtown Detroit.
Photo by Ryan M. Place
“Well, my motivation to run for Mayor was built up over several years and came from a broad spectrum of people who encouraged me to seriously consider running for Mayor.”
“For the longest time, I thought ‘Me run for Mayor? I’m just happy to be on the Supreme Court!’”
“I saw the businesses leaving the city, crime rate going up, city having fiscal problems, buses not running on time. People were taking 2-3 buses just to get to their jobs, which were outside the city. We’re the largest metropolitan area in the USA that did not have a rapid transit system.”
Loveland’s Detroit Map (image courtesy of Detroit Archives)
“Detroit in the 1990 U.S. Census was said to have 1,027,000 people and led the nation with the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line, 32.2%.”
“It was ironic that in the Motor City, 35% of our residents could not afford to own a car.”
“At its peak, 1953-54, Detroit had almost two million residents.”
“When you fast-forward to the early 1990’s and subtract over 800,000 people who were no longer living here, the same housing stock was not needed and, thus, we had many vacant homes and empty blocks.”
Photo courtesy of Detroit Archives
“Some blocks only had 1-2 houses on them and there was a lot of illegal dumping of trash and waste. Our residents didn’t have jobs. Businesses had left the city. We were having challenges with public schools. There’s was not a lot of optimism or hope here. But there was a deep yearning for change.”
“I was fortunate to be able to attract over 6,000 campaign volunteers who believed in our thoughts for a greater Detroit. I had asked the people directly what were their real problems and what did they want for their city, their children and what would make them excited? Together, we devised a plan of action.”
Inheriting a Deficit
Photo courtesy of Detroit Bail Bonds
“We had a big surprise after the election and I found out from the head of my financial transition team, Jay Alix, that the city of Detroit was anticipating an $88.5 million-dollar deficit.”
“We went to New York and met with the powerful ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. They knew every detail about the city of Detroit, it was incredible. We were at junk bond status. The city had to actually buy insurance in order to sell our bonds.”
“We brought us back up to investment-grade status.”
Kevin Orr (Photo courtesy of Detroit Archives)
“When my successor Kwame Kilpatrick stepped down, Mayor Bing inherited a $315 million-dollar deficit. Governor Snyder tried working with the city of Detroit to avoid appointing an emergency manager, however, when the Consent Agreement failed, he had to appoint Kevyn Orr.”
“Kevyn ended up doing a masterful job and helped guide Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy in USA history. $18 billion dollars in debt was successfully restructured and a revitalization plan was implemented.”
“Back in the 1960’s, Mayor Cavanagh had predicted unless he had help, Detroit faced bankruptcy. One of the main reasons was population decline. Revenues in the form of income tax & real estate tax were not coming in to help fund the running of the city.”
Being a Big City Mayor is Tough
Photo by Ryan M. Place
“We had some very outstanding plans for the city but when you find out you’re facing a deficit and there’s no money to implement those plans, that money goes to balancing the budget.”
“We had a modest surplus, a rainy-day fund and every single year I was in office, the budget was balanced and at one point the two pension funds were overfunded. The hardest part was not being able to live up to the citizens high expectations for the city of Detroit.”
Photo by Ryan M. Place
“By earning an Empowerment Zone designation, President Clinton’s urban renewal program gave us a hand up. Governor Engler’s Renaissance Zones helped us bring in new business. I convinced Vice President Al Gore to have an EZ (Empowerment Zone) meeting in Detroit. We had the most successful EZ out of all the EZ’s in the USA. The number of investments were staggering.”
“While I was in office, we were able to attract $20.2 billion dollars in new investments to the city.”
“Brenda Schneider documented the investments and number of projects that came in every year. Her findings are in the Appendix of my book.”
Dennis Helps Attract Investments to Detroit
Greektown Casino (Photo courtesy of Detroit Archives)
“In 1994, we had a ballot initiative for a riverboat casino at Atwater and putting an Indian-owned casino in Greektown.”
“The casino ballot passed for Greektown and Gov. Engler appointed a commission to study casino gaming. We convinced them we could have up to 4-5 casinos in the city of Detroit. We had several proposals.”
Trump Casino in Detroit rendering (Photo courtesy of Detroit Archives)
“Even Donald Trump wanted to build a Detroit-themed Trump Casino here. Another casino mogul, Don Barden, later tried getting pop singer Michael Jackson to be a casino partner with him here. Barden eventually went to Ohio to support a statewide ballot. The issue lost there and we won a statewide privilege of having up to 3 privately owned casinos in Detroit.”
“MGM and Motor City opened in 1999, then Greektown in 2000. Without revenue from those casinos, the city of Detroit would’ve been bankrupt a long time ago.”
Ilitch’s, Gov. Engler, Mayor Archer (Photo courtesy of Detroit Archives)
“Comerica Park, the new Tigers stadium, was on its way. Mike Ilitch had bought the Detroit Tigers from Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan. Like Mayor Coleman Young, we wanted to help Ilitch keep the Tigers here in the city. I investigated the feasibility of upgrading the stadium. The upgrade could not be done to accomplish their goals and the fans’ needs. We were able to get funding from the state and city to help build a new stadium.”
“Then the Lions came to Detroit from Pontiac. Bill Ford Jr. of Ford Motor Company couldn’t work out a new deal with the city of Pontiac, so we worked with him to bring the Detroit Lions football stadium downtown. We were blessed to have the Ilitch and Ford Families to work together.”
Devil’s Night Detroit (Photo courtesy of Detroit Archives)
“Devil’s Night in Detroit was the name for the night before Halloween. It was notorious because of the arson. In 1983, there were 650 fires on Devil’s Night.
“In 1984, there were over 800 fires. After I became Mayor, I said this has to stop, especially since we had a problem in 1994.”
We created Angel’s Night after the idea was presented to us by John George. It took a few years, but it has been deemed a complete success. ”
Detroit Fire Department t-shirt (Photo courtesy of Detroit Fire Dept.)
Urban Renewal of the Sprawling Motor City
Photo courtesy of Detroit Archives
“New housing was being built in the city. Bob Larson (Vice Chairman of Taubman Co.) led a group that developed a zone concept to deal with vacant land in Detroit.”
“They divided the city into 10 zones. We invited representatives from each zone to Cobo Hall and we engaged them to elect people from each zone to talk to citizens in their zone to find out what they wanted done to help improve their lives.”
“Like I said in the book, when I was Mayor, the pace was frenetic, crisis management was constant, but the crime rate declined every single year I was in office.”
“We also helped beautify the parks. At the time, many were overgrown, dangerous, had no basketball nets. Bill Davidson, owner of the Detroit Pistons and his colleagues installed basketball courts and baseball diamonds. Then we helped to generate 30 more parks being cleaned and fully upgraded. Later they set up a $1 million-dollar endowment to help keep up the parks. The deal was that the City of Detroit Parks and Rec Department would keep it mowed and maintained.”
“Community organizers were painting houses, fixing porches, etc. Habitat led to a major effort within the city. ”
Photo courtesy of Detroit Archives
“Edsel Ford II said yes to being our Champion to celebrate the 300th Anniversary of Detroit on July 24th, 2001. He raised millions of dollars for Detroit. He also started the RiverWalk from Cobo to Ford Auditorium. We had tall ships, a 100-person choir singing. Part of the funds Edsel raised helped to build Campus Martius.”
“Roger Penske got the Grand Prix to come back to Detroit, spent a lot of his own money to do so.”
“I remember I was looking at Belle Isle with the Parks & Rec Department, thinking what would it take to redo Belle Isle? Our bond rating had gone up and we could borrow up to $80 million to redevelop Belle Isle. I said, we could charge per car and that money would go toward the maintenance of the park and we could pay off the bond in 14 years.”
Had we done that, it would’ve already been paid off by now. But, as a result of Detroit’s bankruptcy, the state of Michigan has Belle Isle for 30 years and are upgrading the island.”
Advice from President Clinton
“A few weeks after I got elected in 1994, I spent the night at the White House in the Lincoln Bedroom. President Clinton lost his voice after the State of Union address that evening, but we still talked while watching the Arkansas basketball game.”
“At the time, I was doing 3-4 speeches per day, trying to promote the city of Detroit. I asked him ‘how do you do this all the time?’ He said, ‘never make an important decision when you’re tired.’”
Deciding Not to Run for Mayor Again
Photo courtesy of Detroit Archives
“I decided not to run again because I was physically tired. I was working 16-18 hour days 7 days per week. Religious entities have church on Sunday, so I attended multiple functions every single Sunday. I enjoyed being mayor but also felt a new person with new and different ideas could take us to the next level and would be more helpful.”
“A few years later, I became President of the American Bar Association and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Detroit’s Regional Chamber.”
What Makes a Great Mayor
Photo by Ryan M. Place
“Caring more about the people they’re serving than about themselves makes a great mayor.”
“Someone who is not afraid to stand up and fight for what’s right for the citizens of the city, help those less fortunate, improve opportunities for everyone, improve the police and fire department, listen to people and help solve their problems, etc, there’s a lot of components. Treat everyone fairly and with respect.”
The Law firm of Dickinson Wright
“Chairman Emeritus is a title of appreciation for my accomplishments on behalf of the Dickinson Wright firm while I was chairman.”
“When I left the Michigan Supreme Court in December 1990 and joined Dickinson Wright as equity partner in January 1991, I was trying cases, having meetings, and searching for solutions to the problems of the city of Detroit.”
“I was delighted that I could also help open doors for minority businesses and it allowed them to show that people of color can be successful.”
Some of Dennis’ Favorite Detroit Spots
Central Kitchen + Bar (photo courtesy of CKB)
Central Kitchen + Bar (“my son’s and his investors’ restaurant”)
London Chop House
The Caucus Club
Joe Muer’s Seafood
The Rattlesnake Club
Bakers Keyboard Lounge
Jimmy D’s Celebrity House (used to be on Livernois, it’s gone now)
Lafayette-Orleans Bar (also gone now)
Favorite Authors & Books
“I like John Grisham books. ‘Bobby Kennedy’ by Chris Matthews. Authors Charles Ogletree, Jesse Jackson, Robert Harris, and other Civil Rights leaders. ‘Dr. Martin Luther King’ by Taylor Branch.”
“Usually, I have to do a lot of required reading as a lawyer, so my reading-for-pleasure time is very limited.”
Eastern Market: A Detroit Gem
Photo courtesy of Detroit Archives
“Eastern Market is an outstanding resource for the city. Go by and visit Father Norman Thomas at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. One of the things on my agenda was to try and have Eastern Market open seven days per week, not just Saturday.”
“I asked Fr. Thomas to chair the initiative and he became head of the Eastern Market Task Force to help make Eastern Market a more attractive destination. My family and I still go down to Eastern Market frequently. We buy real Christmas trees there and buy BBQ at Bert’s and we’ll be at Detroit Bookfest.”
The Legacy of Dennis Archer
Photo by Ryan M. Place
“What do I want to be remembered for the most? I’ll leave that to historians.”
“Just remember, when you put people first, good things will happen. And yes, the small things in life do make a difference.”