When I phoned Rosalie Trombley, at the time one of the most powerful figures in the music business, I did not expect her to agree to talk to me.
Writing for the Windsor Star, I had been something of a thorn in the side of CKLW, the 50-thousand-watt Windsor AM radio station where she reigned as the widely admired—and feared– music director. Rosalie did not just play the hits on Detroit’s number one top 30 music station, she made the hits.
To my surprise, she agreed to talk for a profile I was doing on her for what was then Weekend Magazine. Although she was something of a legend within the music industry, she was not exactly a household word. Which was just the way she liked it.
In those days, the late Sixties, early 1970s, CKLW was in a unique position. An accident of geography gave what would otherwise have been a local radio station, entrée into the huge Detroit market and into the heart of the American Midwest If you listened to the Big 8, as the station called itself, you would never have known it originated in Canada. For its millions of listeners, CKLW was a hard-driving Detroit juggernaut.
This was the heyday of AM radio and the station had adopted the much more music format originated by a California disc jockey named Bill Drake. Drake rightly divined that young listeners wanted lots of music, not disc jockey banter. Rosalie had become one of the most fervent and successful disciples of that philosophy.
An attractive 33-year-old, her blond hair done in a bouffant, it was not hard to imagine Rosalie as a 1950s teenager from Leamington, Ontario, dancing to Frankie Lymon and Bo Diddley records on CKLW. She admitted that at the time she had little more than any normal kid’s interest in the hits of the day.
But after she arrived at the radio station as a parttime switchboard operator, she was moved to the music library. Soon the station manager asked her to “do the music.” The rest is radio broadcasting history. Some people have great natural singing voices. Rosalie had an intuitive knack for picking hit records.
Among her achievements at CKLW, she gets credit for exposing Bob Seger to a national audience, making Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking “What’s Going On” a hit, and attracting national attention for Elton John when she added “Bennie and the Jets” to her playlist.
By the time I talked to her, however, CKLW and Rosalie were under the gun to play the 30 per cent Canadian content demanded by the fledging Canadian Radio-Television Commission. I wrote a great deal about the station’s determination to do everything it could to circumvent the new rulings. They even tried to preview short Canadian song clips on the popular AM station, then play the whole song on the lesser FM station and call it Canadian content.
Writing about this sort of conniving did not make me popular at the station. I can’t imagine Rosalie thought a whole lot of me. Nonetheless, she went along with the interview. We talked in her cramped office. She was guarded at first but not unfriendly, and eventually quite candid about her job and her reputation for toughness. “The only thing I care about is my station,” she pronounced.
Despite CKLW’s disdain for the content regulations, it is generally accepted that Rosalie’s championing of Canadian performers such as Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, and the Guess Who helped to introduce them to American audiences. Because of her influence on Canadian music, the news of Rosalie’s death yesterday at the age of 82, brought more attention than she ever got during her most dominant years at CKLW.
And while Rosalie might not be all that happy to hear this, thanks to her, I got to write my first magazine piece. That opened the door to a career as a freelance magazine writer in Canada and the United States.
Rosalie helping yet another Canadian act.