Obituary: Rosalie Trombley – radio hitmaker (82)

As music director for CKLW-AM in Windsor, Ontario, she furthered the careers of Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, the Temptations in Detroit and beyond.

Photo: Rosalie Trombley of the radio station CKLW in an undated photo. Ed Haun/Detroit Free Press

17 December 2021 |  Neil Genzlinger | The New York Times

Whatever story you have about the high point of your junior high school years, Tim Trombley has a better one. The rocker Alice Cooper once picked him up at his school in a limousine to take him to lunch.

That was one of the perks of having Rosalie Trombley for a mother.

From 1967 into the early 1980s, Ms. Trombley was the music director for CKLW-AM, a radio station based in Windsor, Ontario, with a signal so powerful that it was heard in dozens of states in the U.S., dominating the markets of Detroit and other Midwestern cities in the days before the emergence of FM. A 1971 headline in The Detroit Free Press called her “The Most Powerful Lady in Pop Music,” because her tastes went a long way toward determining what was played on the station, which in turn went a long way toward determining what was played in the rest of North America.

Sometimes, Mr. Trombley related in a phone interview, his mother would bring demo records home, and he would be allowed to play them. She noticed that he was playing one quite a lot: Mr. Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen.”

“She made it known to the label, to Warner Bros., ‘Tim has been playing this song over and over,’” Mr. Trombley said, and she slipped it into CKLW’s rotation. In late 1970 it became Mr. Cooper’s breakout hit. And so Mr. Cooper, a Detroit native, took young Tim to lunch one day as a thank-you.

“I knew that mom had a really cool job,” Mr. Trombley said.

Ms. Trombley died on Nov. 23 at a long-term care center in Leamington, Ontario, where she had been living for some time. She was 82. Mr. Trombley said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Ms. Trombley seemed an unlikely starmaker. She was a single mother of three when she started at CKLW as a part-time switchboard operator. The Free Press once wrote that she “looks like Doris Day’s next-door neighbor.” But she was, as newspapers often described her, “the lady with the golden ear” who, with her no-nonsense demeanor, could hold her own in the male-dominated music business of the day.

The list of stars who owed her a debt of gratitude was long.

“You’d come in in the morning,” Keith Radford, a former newsman at the station, said in an interview for a video series produced by Radio Trailblazers, an organization promoting women in Canadian radio, “and there’d be big bouquets of flowers at the front desk, from Elton John or the Rolling Stones.”

Ms. Trombley would hold court on Thursdays for record promoters who hoped to get their new songs onto CKLW’s “Big 30” playlist.

“If they wanted the record really bad, they would bring the act with them,” Johnny Williams, a former D.J., said in the video. “So it wasn’t unusual every Thursday to see the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis Jr.”

One artist who made such a pilgrimage was Tony Orlando, who in the video recalled that Ms. Trombley had heard him out that day and offered him an invitation.

“Rosalie said, ‘I’ll tell you what: If your next record comes within the ballpark of a commercial record, a playable Top 40 record, because you took the time to come here — but only if it has the goods — I’ll give it consideration big time,’” he said. “And that next record was ‘Yellow Ribbon’” — that is, Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Ole Oak Tree,” the top-selling record of 1973. “And she was the first to put it on the air.”

Ms. Trombley with the singer-songwriter Bob Seger holding gold record plaques for his 1978 album, “Stranger in Town.” “Seger never had any problem getting on CKLW,” she said.
Ms. Trombley with the singer-songwriter Bob Seger holding gold record plaques for his 1978 album, “Stranger in Town.” “Seger never had any problem getting on CKLW,” she said.Credit… Detroit Free Press

Rosalie Helen Gillan was born on Sept. 18, 1939, in Leamington. Her father, Shell, was a general foreman at the Ford Motor Company of Canada, and her mother, Katherine (Piper) Gillan, was a switchboard operator.

After graduating from high school, she worked at Bell Canada for a time. She married Clayton Trombley in 1958. She took the switchboard job at CKLW in late 1962, working in that capacity for several years and, as The Vancouver Sun put it in a 1973 article about her, “inadvertently picking up the politics of the music business simply by learning to handle sometimes troublesome record-promotion people who arrived at the station to ply their wares.”

Around 1968, Ms. Trombley and her husband separated (they later divorced), and at about the same time she was offered the chance to take over for the station’s record librarian, who was going on maternity leave. The station’s program director soon took note of her ear for hits and made her music director, a job she held, Tim Trombley said, until she was laid off in the early 1980s in a downsizing effort.

Ms. Trombley didn’t rely only on her own tastes; she would call R&B stations in the area to see what they were playing, which led her to give CKLW’s 50,000 watts of exposure to Black artists. She similarly boosted the careers of Canadian artists like Gordon Lightfoot and the Guess Who, as well as a number of Detroit-area stars, including Bob Seger.

“Seger never had any problem getting on CKLW,” she told The Detroit Free Press in 2004 when Mr. Seger was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “Look at the songs. Listen to the lyrics. I’m a lyric freak. When someone is saying something in a song, I can’t be the only person interested in it.”

Well, Mr. Seger almost never had any problem getting on the station. Some of his new material came her way in the early 1970s, and she panned it. He sat down and wrote a song about her called “Rosalie” — a tribute to her importance, but with a sly, reproving undercurrent that they both laughed about later.

“He was pissed off when he wrote that song about me,” she said. “He told me!”

Payola — offering payoffs to get a song played — was part of the radio business during Ms. Trombley’s reign, and her son said it was common knowledge in the industry that she was a single mother, so some promoters would make it subtly known to her that there was money available.

“She made it less subtly known,” he said, “that if they wanted to continue to meet with her every week, that was not something that was going to get their record on the radio.”

She had her musical favorites, especially Neil Diamond. But that didn’t necessarily win him radio time.

“I’m not playing his current release,” she told The Sun in 1973, tactfully not naming it, “because it looks like a midchart record, and I won’t go with it when I know out front that it’s only midchart.”

In addition to her son Tim, she is survived by another son, Todd; a daughter, Diane Lauzon; and a grandson.

In 2016 Ms. Trombley received a special Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. Radio Trailblazers has an annual award recognizing women who have “blazed new trails in radio.” She received the first, in 2005, and it is now called simply the Rosalie Award.

Rosalie Trombley  

BRIAN MCCOLLUM   | Detroit Free Press

Rosalie Trombley, the golden-eared tastemaker who became one of North America’s most powerful radio programmers, died Tuesday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, her family said. She was 82.

As music director at Windsor’s 50,000-watt CKLW-AM across the Detroit River, the unassuming Ontario native was a music-industry force starting in the late ’60s — breaking hits, playing musical kingmaker and turning the station into an influential continental player.

“Rosalie was an icon, a trailblazer and our friend,” Bob Seger said in a statement. “Through her hard work and incredible instincts, she achieved a rare level of influence and power in music. When she got behind your record, other stations would follow suit. She was literally a gatekeeper to national success and we were so fortunate to have her support, especially on many of our early records. She was an integral part of our journey and we are eternally grateful. We will miss her.”

Born in Leamington, Ontario, Rosalie Trombley moved back to the town about five years ago and was in an assisted living facility there at the time of her death.

“She just had this innate sense for what artists, what songs, could have mass appeal,” said her son Tim Trombley. “The power of AM radio back then was really immeasurable. It was a pretty special time.”

Trombley’s adventurous song picks — from rock to R&B — were boosted by the broad reach of CKLW, a station heard across Canada and nearly two dozen U.S. states at night. Other radio programmers came to follow her lead.

“It was nothing to pick up the phone and hear ‘Hi, this is Bob Smith from Idaho, and I’m getting all kinds of calls at my radio station for this record they’re hearing on your radio station. Tell me about “These Eyes” by the Guess Who,’” she recounted to the Free Press in 2003. “It was like, ‘Wow.’ ”

Trombley — “the most powerful woman in popdom,” as the Free Press described her in 1971 — gave many mainstream radio listeners their first taste of music from Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Funkadelic and other Detroit-related acts. And she helped introduce American audiences to burgeoning Canadian artists, including the Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot, Bachman Turner-Overdrive and Paul Anka.

“I just believe that Detroit had real good ears, the listeners, when it came to the music they heard on the radio,” she said in 2003. “The records, the way they would break, the way they would sell.”

Having arrived in Windsor in 1963, Trombley started at CKLW with a part-time job as a weekend switchboard operator. Eventually, she took a role in the station’s record library, and by 1967 was music director.

During a global rock-music revolution, she was a conduit to AM radio and the Top 40 airwaves. And despite CKLW’s Canadian home base, the station was regarded in the industry as a Detroit outlet.

“Basically, (Detroit) was becoming known as testing the true rock ‘n’ roll records,” Trombley said.

She also took cues from Black radio in Detroit, helping break artists such as the O’Jays and the Foundations to pop audiences. In 1971, she was among the first programmers who helped make a hit out of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a record initially resisted by Motown chief Berry Gordy.

In 1974, when she heard Detroit R&B station WJLB spinning an Elton John album cut, Trombley added the track to CKLW’s rotation. “Bennie and the Jets” instantly ignited the station’s request lines, and John’s record label was soon convinced to release it as his next single.

“A week later, Elton called her from England and wanted to know the whole story,” Tim Trombley said.

Trombley’s veto power was as important as her thumbs-up, and that make-or-break influence was immortalized by Seger in the vaguely sardonic 1973 tribute “Rosalie”: “She’s got the plastic / It comes from all the corners of the world / So fantastic / She’s everybody’s favorite little record girl.”

But Trombley, who once called herself “a lyric freak,” was a bona fide Seger fan, embracing his music for the CKLW airwaves.

“It didn’t matter what it was by Bob,” she said. “He didn’t miss too often.”

Seger and Trombley ultimately forged a friendship, often meeting up at Windsor’s Hacienda restaurant to talk music. Their connection, she said, came from their similar, low-key personalities.

“I always felt comfortable around an artist that I could trust, that would respect the privacy I kept in my private life,” she said.

Trombley’s knack for selecting hits was part intuition, part people skills, part dedicated research. She forged tight relationships with record-shop operators in Detroit, both white and Black, keeping an ear to the ground for new records with bubbling sales.

“If I picked music just to suit my taste, I wouldn’t have my job,” she said in 1971. “I lean heavily toward soul music. I find it hard personally to be critical of any Diana Ross record, for instance.”

In a rollicking record and radio universe with its share of sketchy characters, Trombley prided herself on her clean way of doing business.

“The record promoters and record companies know better than to offer me payola,” she told the Free Press in ’71. “They also know not to offer me a joint. I’m too square, too straight for that sort of thing.”

Jo-Jo Shutty MacGregor, who was hired at CKLW in 1975 to become the first female helicopter traffic reporter in North America, called Trombley an important mentor whose power as a woman in a male-dominated industry commanded respect.

“Wasn’t it amazing that an amazing 50,000-watt powerhouse like CKLW would choose a female to head that music department? MacGregor said. “It really says a lot.

“What a wonderful spirit she was. Nobody has made a mark like she has.”

Trombley loved Detroit and spent much time in the city, visiting clubs such as the Grande Ballroom to catch rock and soul performers.

“If the latest R&B act coming up was playing, she’d go over,” said Tim Trombley. “She was accepted with open arms by the Black music community.”

Tim Trombley said Wednesday that his mother’s open music sensibility helped create a special time on the airwaves.

“It was just magical, the way it was programmed,” he said. “All this diverse repertoire somehow worked on this one radio station.”

Trombley’s CKLW reign from 1967 to 1984 was followed by stints at Detroit’s WLTI-FM and Toronto oldies station CKEY. She ultimately returned to Windsor and worked in the marketing department at the now-Caesars Windsor before retiring in 2008.

Son Tim Trombley said his mother’s proudest work was her family. She was a single mom raising two sons and a daughter.

“She loved her job, but did what she could to raise her three kids,” Tim Trombley said. “She had this cool job and this great influence, but in her mind, that was secondary to raising us.”

Trombley is survived by her son Tim Trombley and his wife, Renee Trombley; son Todd Trombley; daughter Diane Lauzon and her husband, David Lauzon; and grandson Bobby Lauzon.

A private service will be held for family members and friends.

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