The life and legacy of Dick Wagner was celebrated in true Detroit rock and roll fashion this past weekend.

Dick Wagner, often referred to as “The Maestro of Rock,” led a rich and illustrious life as one of the most published musicians of our era. His work with Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Lou Reed, Kiss, and many others has been made famous across decades of music to millions of fans. His death in the summer of 2014 was a sad, dark day in musical history. On this night however, family, friends, and fans all came together to celebrate the passion and energy he had bestowed upon the world with a rousing tribute that took on a life all its own.

The Fillmore Detroit was nearly packed to capacity early on when doors opened shortly after 5pm. Rock and roll legends from Detroit and beyond, young and old, strolled among the foyer and mezzanine. The entire vibe of the night was more of a huge family reunion at times with friends reconnecting and handshakes quickly giving way to hugs. Love, laughter, and music filled the rafters as the patrons settled in for an evening that was teeming with kindred spirits.

While a silent auction benefiting the Children’s Miracle Network took place in the main foyer areas, a screening of “Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story” by Producer/Director Tony D’Annunzio played out on the projection screen above the stage. The Grande Ballroom was one of the greatest historic music venues of Detroit, if not the nation, where the gritty rock and roll sounds of the Motor City were forged on steel guitars. Interviews of Wagner in various clips intertwined with other musicians recounting their memories of the hallowed concert hall drew many glowing smiles from the crowd. The film also included a song Wagner had written and performed for the film, simply titled “Motor City Music.”

Longtime Detroit radio host, the “Doc of Rock” Doug Podell, set the tone for the evening as host and emcee. One of the more somber moments of the night came early on when Podell brought out a hat often worn by Wagner. “It’s only fitting that he be sitting right here in the front of the stage with us tonight,” said Podell as he reverently set it on a mic stand at the forefront of the stage. Susan Michelson, who was Wagner’s business partner in life, joined Podell on stage to express her thanks with a radiant smile to all who came forth to make the evening’s performance possible.

The nearly four-hour long concert was a time capsule unleashed from Wagner’s musical career. Dennis Burr and Ray Goodman, legends in their own, filled in most of the main guitar duties throughout the night backed by the bass talents of Gene Fiero and the ever charismatic Joe Bass. Singer Maryann Cotton led off the night with a theatrical vibe and commanding stage presence. The sultry Miss Wensday provided a seductive vocal performance on “Only Women Bleed” and “Black Widow.” Marshall Crenshaw filled in on lead guitar and vocals for a few Bossmen and Frost songs. Keyboardist Paul Brown was joined on stage by Brad Whitford for a soulful instrumental pairing, the notes floating in the air. Joining Whitford on stage came Derek Saint Holmes for a rousing rendition of the Aerosmith classic “Train Kept a Rollin.” Al Jacquez and Scott Morgan paired up to perform “On The Road” trading smiles back and forth as they switched off.

And keep a rolling the show did as Robert Wagner came on stage to perform an eight-song set. “What’s going on in Detroit tonight people? It looks like a rock and roll show to me! Get up!” he urged the crowd as he placed his father’s hat upon his head. Together they moved on stage, father and son, performing the most electric portion of the show that night. Robert gave a tender, wistful rendition of “Remember The Child” accompanied by Brown on keyboards, the words piercing the air heavy with emotion.

The anthemic “Rock and Roll Music” brought the crowd to their feet as Mark Farner came on stage with a broad smile. “Let’s go! Come on Detroit!” he exclaimed as he cranked it up to eleven with his solo and followed with “Mystery Man” and “I’d Take The Bullet.” “I’m Your Captain – Closer To Home” had the audience engaged in full backing vocal support. A hot and heated Detroit rock and roll concert was in full swing as the crowd surged to the stage for the final number of the evening.

With nearly every musician of the night gathered on stage, they launched in to the grand finale of the evening with an exhilarating rendition of “Welcome To My Nightmare” by Alice Cooper. Smoke pipes bellowed from the front of the stage adding to the sheen of sweat that glistened across the sea of faces that spanned generations. The list of rock and roll dignitaries who had appeared for earlier in the evening, including Danny Seraphine (Chicago drummer), Drew Abbott (Bob Seger Silver Bullet Band), Jimmie Bones (Twisted Brown Trucker Band/Kid Rock), and Johnny “Bee” Badanjek (The Rockets/Mitch Ryder/Detroit Wheels), returned to help close the show.

This evening, even if only for a brief time, the portals of rock and roll were flung open and the Fillmore was transformed back in time to The Grande Ballroom again. It was an outpouring of memories, music, and love; an honorable tribute fit for a king and dedicated to a maestro.

“The Maestro of Rock”, Dick Wagner.
1942 – 2014

Photo credit – Jon Gillies

All proceeds from the evening were donated to the The Children’s Miracle Network and the Beaumont Children’s Hospital.

Related article: Dick Wagner: A look back at the life of “The Maestro of Rock” 

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