Tino Gross' music links run from Bob Dylan to Kid Rock
At the mixing board sits an afternoon glass of red wine and a mind armed with half a century's worth of Detroit music know-how. It's all instinctive for Martin (Tino) Gross. In his Pleasant Ridge recording studio, a comfy building with a vintage '60s charm, Gross is directing a young trio, StaggoLee, through its debut record of hot blues-rock.
"These kids have really got it," Gross later gushes.
He would know. As front man of the Howling Diablos, Gross isn't just a familiar face around town. He's one of the area's unheralded musical treasures, a walking Detroit storybook and rock-blues-funk encyclopedia.
The Diablos' two-decade tenure on the local scene is set to culminate with what he calls "the most Detroit record we've ever done" -- the new "Ultra Sonic Gas Can," to be celebrated with a release show Saturday at the Park Bar. He'll be joined by the Diablos' reigning lineup, a chops-heavy list of players that includes sax man Johnny Evans, drummer Johnny (Bee) Badanjek, bassist Mo Hollis and guitarist Erik Gustafson.
With performances by StaggoLee and Horse Cave Trio, the night will also serve as a debutante party for Funky D Records, the label he runs with longtime girlfriend and disc jockey Linda Lexy.
The likable Gross is one of those guys: Everybody seems to know him, and he knows everybody. He's toured with John Lee Hooker. He's a confidant of Peter Wolf. He helped introduce Kid Rock to the idea of blending rap with live music, and when you catch Gross onstage, it's easy to see why people call him Rock's model -- from the fedora on down.
Gross has recorded with Insane Clown Posse, cut remixes for the late bluesman R.L. Burnside and will share a writing credit with Bob Dylan on the upcoming debut album by deaf musician Sean Forbes, which repurposes a set of Dylan lyrics.
"I'm happier than I've ever been," says Gross, 58. "I'm always a positive cat, looking ahead to see what's around the next corner."
A flurry of projects
Gross, raised by a beatnik-painter mom on Detroit's west side ("the weirdo house on the block," he says), can tap a seemingly endless well of cool stories. There he was, sitting cross-legged on the floor as a kid in the '60s, watching basement rehearsals by the neighborhood band Amboy Dukes. Sneaking into the Grande Ballroom as a junior high schooler. Pulling records from the walls of the abandoned Fortune Records in the '70s. Filling in on drums with the Stooges. Hopping onstage to play guitar with Dylan at the Fox Theatre.
If you trace the twists and turns of Detroit's rock story during the past half-century, you can usually spot Gross somewhere in the plot. And that's left him with a unique vantage point on what he calls "absolutely the greatest music city in America."
"The music goes up the corridor, from New Orleans through Memphis up to Detroit," he says. "The branches go out to New York and L.A., but this is the trunk of the tree."
All those influences get churned into the funky, rocking brew concocted by the Diablos, such a fixture in Detroit that the group often can seem taken for granted. The band never did get its big break -- a looming deal with Atlantic Records slipped away a decade ago -- but these days Gross is busier than ever, burrowed in a flurry of projects.
His own break came on the blues and R&B circuit in the early 1970s, playing drums on regional tours with veterans like Eddie Taylor, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rodgers and Bo Diddley.
With rockers such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin name-checking America's old and often forgotten bluesmen, Gross realized "that's where the credibility comes from. If you could get it together there, you had something."
He watched and studied, struck by the mix of style and danger embodied in artists such as Hooker. After stints as a session drummer with Ann Arbor's Blind Pig Records and part of the house band at Dearborn blues bar Sully's, Gross helped found the Urbations, the quirky funk-rock outfit that became Detroit's leading party band in the '80s.
'Too much music in there'
As that group splintered in 1991, Gross teamed with fellow Urbations veteran Evans to form the Howling Diablos.
"There was too much music in us that couldn't come out on the blues circuit -- the funk, the rap," Gross says. "We were able to change our identity from a blues band to a whatever-we-wanted-to-be band."
The Bear's Den, a Berkley cubbyhole known for its generous underage admission policy, became host to Sunday night jams with the Diablos -- raucous, free-spirited musical parties that quickly became the stuff of legend.
With Gross leaving the drum kit for a front man role, the Diablos were a hit with fans half their age, integrating rap and a streetwise edge into the accessible funk-rock grooves.
Gross had been enamored of hip-hop for years, even toying around with the sound during the Urbations' run. But it came with a twist: When Gross played one of his early rap recordings for a Def Jam exec, he was told: "There's too much music in there. That's not how we're going to do rap in New York."
But Gross was sold on his Detroit version of hip-hop, a rock-funk-rap hybrid.
Others weren't so generous.
"We were getting kicked out of bars for doing rap," he says. "I could see the lines being drawn. It didn't seem in the cards for the Howling Diablos to be the band that seemed dangerous, that made people angry, but it was."
It didn't help when the band began inviting an eager young rapper-DJ onstage to scratch records to the music.
"When we started bringing Bob around, it got real intense," Gross says. "They'd get in our face: 'Keep that blond (jerk) the hell out of here.' "
Bob Ritchie Jr. -- you know him as Kid Rock -- became pals with Gross in 1994. They met backstage at a concert and realized they had knowledge to share: Kid Rock had done some time in hip-hop's trenches. Gross had a lifetime in rock and blues -- and an onstage persona that would eventually become familiar to millions of Kid Rock fans.
"It's no secret that Bob spent a lot of time at the Bear's Den, as we all did back then," says Matt Lee, a local music publicist. "Watching the Diablos obviously put a lightbulb on in his head. It showed him the possibilities of what you could do over rock and funk grooves."
Rock became a regular at Diablos gigs and a collaborator with Gross, cowriting material for Rock's "Early Morning Stoned Pimp" and producing several Diablos tunes. Rock's transition from Beastie Boys-style emcee to full-on rock-rapper was under way.
Gross concedes that "I see a lot of myself in him," but says if Rock borrowed anything from his repertoire, he only considers it an honor.
The world looks bright as Gross peers ahead. He's got fun plans with Funky D, aiming to link up with more young acts of StaggoLee's ilk -- "bands that can be as good live as the records we put out."
"It's always about moving," he says. "I don't want to be a victim of the music biz. I want to make the music biz spin."