Downriver author recalls Detroit halcyon days of 60s and 70s

Bob Harris

PAULA NEUMAN

Mick Jagger once called Bob Harris of Southgate “the oldest Rolling Stones fan in America.”

That was 1999 when Harris was 69. Today he’s 91. He first met the Stones in Detroit during their second tour in 1965. He was then publisher of The Teen News, and he had a photo taken with the band. When he met them 25 years later, he had them autograph the picture.

In the 1970s, he published Extra, another entertainment newspaper. Through that work; through various side gigs promoting bands, singers and concerts; and through his own brand of friendly, bullheaded tenacity, Harris has met a lot of big names over the years.

He sums up his secret to success with six words: “Don’t take no for an answer.”

In 2008, Harris and co-author John Douglas Peters, wrote “Motor City Rock and Roll: The 1960s and 1970s” – one of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series.

The book is full of vintage photos –  many from Harris’ own collection – of entertainers, and includes disc jockeys, concert venues and descriptions of the way things were. The picture of Harris with the Stones is the book’s cover image. He did a book signing and brought some of his photos to a recent event at McGuckin’s Pub in Taylor, where he hangs out occasionally, regaling younger patrons with his stories.

A great-great-grandfather today, Harris loves to talk about his extraordinary life.

He was born in 1930 and adopted by Jean Harris, who never told him anything about his birth parents.  A few years ago, a family friend got a DNA kit for him to help him look for his family roots. Eventually, he found the names of his mother and father, who were from Massachusetts, and five siblings – all deceased. But why he ended up adopted is still a mystery, he said.

Harris was very young when he moved with his mother from New York City to Chicago. He tells tales of growing up around gangsters, and once getting shot in the leg by a neighborhood gang member. In 1941, when he was 11, he and his mother moved to Detroit. Shortly thereafter, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

“When the war started, I was sitting in front of a radio,” Harris said. “That’s what you did in those days: You sat on the floor in front of the radio. I said, ‘Man, I’m going into the service to help my country.’”

A few years later, that’s what he did.

Harris quit school – “worst mistake I ever made” – and used the birth certificate of a neighbor’s son who had died to fake being older and get a job at Hudson Motor Car Co. in Detroit. Then he ran away from home and joined the Merchant Marines. He was 14. A year later, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve in Detroit, and almost a year after that, joined the Army and shipped out to Japan, occupied then by U.S. troops. He was 16 and attached to the 46th Engineer Construction Battalion at an airbase west of Yokohama.

After his military service, he went back to work for Hudson Motor Car.

“I went there and the guy said, ‘We’re not hiring.’ But when he found out I was in the service, he gave me a job,” Harris said. “I was there for about six years.”

In 1949, he married Hope Seftis. He was 19. A few years later when Hudson Car’s finances began to sink, Harris was laid off.

“Then I bounced around from job to job,” he said. “I was married and had kids. I did everything I could to take care of my family. I worked for a furniture company in the daytime, and cleaned a bar at night after they closed. I had no trade. I never got out of the sixth grade.”

Then he was hired as a salesman for a newspaper called Panorama. The owner wanted to start a teen publication, and hired Harris to sell advertising for it.

“I started going to all these teen clubs and getting the ads, but he reneged on paying me,” Harris said. “That’s when I started my own. I knew all these people, so I went back and lo and behold they all bought ads from me. I jumped right in. It was the early 1960s, and all the record companies were here then – Capitol, Columbia, RCA. They heard about my paper and started calling me. They started sending me records and photographs and wanting stories on all these artists. I’d go there and interview them.”

With The Teen News and later with Extra, Harris met hundreds of entertainers besides his beloved Rolling Stones. He met Frank Sinatra, the Supremes, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson, just to name a few.

He still loves the Stones, but another favorite celebrity he met is comedian Bob Hope, who used to be a regular headliner at the Michigan State Fair. It was the early 1970s when Harris met him there.

“I had my newspaper Extra then, so I went there and I was late,” Harris said. “I was running up the stairs and I bumped into somebody, said ‘excuse me,’ and kept on going. I met the manager there and Bob Hope was there.”

Harris realized the man he’d bumped into was the star himself. They talked, Extra’s photographer took some shots, and then Harris introduced his wife – there to enjoy the fair – to the comedian.

“I said, ‘Bob, I’ve been promoting you for a long time. My name is Bob and my wife’s name is Hope.’ He laughed about it,” Harris said.

A police car was on hand to take the star back to his hotel after the show, and Harris convinced Hope to get in the back and act like he was being arrested for a photo.  The comedian loved it. The two of them were riding together back to the hotel, when Hope said he wanted a hamburger. The police officer stopped at a little restaurant and went in to eat with Harris and Hope.

“All of a sudden the people in the kitchen started coming up to the little serving window, and pretty soon some lady came up and said, ‘I want your autograph.’ The cop said, ‘Hey, he’s eating, don’t come over here.’ So we had lunch and when we were leaving, 10 people went to that booth where we were sitting and took everything – the napkins, the salt shaker – everything.”

Hope was one of the nicest celebrities Harris met. He also speaks highly of singer Bobby Vinton – “He became a real good friend of mine” – and Academy Award winner Sidney Portier – “He said I’d be welcome to come to his house in the Bahamas.”

“One of the bad people is Redd Foxx,” Harris said.

Foxx’s TV show, Sanford and Son, was a favorite in Harris’ household during the 1970s, and he was excited to meet the man in the late 1980s, when Foxx (who died in 1991) lost everything to the IRS for back taxes. R&B singer Geno Washington, whom Harris promoted, called him about setting up a fundraiser for Foxx. Arrangements were made, and Foxx came to town for the event.

“I went to the airport and picked him up,” Harris said. “He had a comedian, Slappy White, traveling with him. We got to the hotel and his rooms weren’t ready. We waited, and then Slappy goes up to the counter and said, ‘Where the hell is our room?’”

A big commotion ensued when people realized Foxx was there, and finally the police were called to disperse the crowd. Foxx and White eventually got their room.

“Redd Foxx had the most terrible attitude through it all,” Harris said. “He never said a word to anybody. He was very unfriendly, and here we were raising some money for him.”

Harris swore off the music business in the late 1970s after Three Ounces of Love, a rising trio of sisters he was managing, left him abruptly after he got the group a gig in a New York City showcase. 

The Commodores performed there, too, and the sisters were wooed by and joined the group’s management team. The contractual conflict that ensued led to a failed lawsuit. But it was the betrayal of the sisters, of whom he was fond, that stung more than the money he lost.

“Them girls hurt me so bad,” Harris said. “It hurt me so bad that I got out of it.”

Since then, he’s survived colon, prostate and skin cancer. He and his wife divorced. But Harris stays busy and enjoys his life.

In 2012, DuMouchelle Art Galleries held an auction of some of his rock memorabilia. Some of his collected photos also are on display at the Detroit Historical Museum.

In 2016 at the age of 86 – along with four younger family members and an 84-year-old friend  – Harris jumped out of an airplane. Five generations of his family were there to cheer him on. The skydiving stunt was covered by radio and TV stations as well as print publications. Living up to his status as the oldest Rolling Stones fan, Harris initially planned to make his skydive into Comerica Park during a Stones concert. He couldn’t get permits.

In 2019, he was invited by the Gary Sinese Foundation’s Soaring Valor organization to attend a three-day reception for veterans at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

“They were sending vets to New Orleans, all expenses paid,” Harris said. “So I went.”

In 2021, he told a Gary Sinese Foundation writer: “That’s one of the best trips I ever had in my whole entire life. I loved it. They treated us like the president of the United States.”

The foundation recently sent him a gift package that included a photo album of his trip, a Bob Hope DVD and other items. A video of Harris opening the package is featured on the foundation’s website, as well as a story about him.

Harris knows his life has been extraordinary.

“I’ve lived the life of three people,” Harris said. “Right now I’m trying to find a person who will do a documentary or another book with me.”

And he offers this advice:

“The first thing is – whatever you do, don’t quit school. I am very sad that I never went to school and got a formal education. The next thing is –  if you really want to succeed, don’t take no for an answer.

“And my last words are – rock on!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *