NEWS
04/03/2016 07:00 EDT | Updated 04/04/2017 01:12 EDT

Trailblazing music director Rosalie Trombley gets Juno recognition

CALGARY — Without Canadian music director Rosalie Trombley we might've never heard Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" or the Guess Who's "These Eyes" on the radio.

Trombley's impeccable ear for a megahit while working at Windsor, Ont.'s CKLW-AM — a station with a signal that stretched well beyond the city — put a spotlight on countless then-unknown songs, including Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" and Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business."

She also convinced John's record label that "Bennie" was destined to be a hit song, if only they'd release it as a radio single.

The Juno Awards wanted to ensure Trombley's influence has an official spot in rock 'n' roll history and honoured her Saturday with the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award. It's the first time a woman has been given the award since its creation in 1984.

When songs were added to CKLW's heavy rotation they would catch the attention of listeners across Detroit and other major U.S. markets. Album sales spiked and many superstars were launched in the process.

While Trombley, 76, was unable to attend the ceremony due to health issues, her son Tim — former head of artist development at EMI Music Canada and now director of entertainment at Caesars Windsor — accepted the award on her behalf.

In the days leading up to the Junos, he spoke with The Canadian Press about his mother's influence:

 

CP: How did your mother break into the radio industry?

Trombley: It happened very serendipitously. My mother started at CKLW as a part-time switchboard operator around 1962 and she was in that role until 1967. (After that) she was offered the record librarian position, which at that time wasn't formally known as the music director position. 

 

CP: Do you think being the only woman in an office of men affected how she operated in radio?

Trombley: I think she had to be strong and not be afraid to stand up to some very powerful music industry icons. As a result of that, she had a lot of respect because people knew they could try and promote (to) her, but if it wasn't in the groove she wasn't going to play it.

 

CP: Burton Cummings credited her for championing the Guess Who's breakthrough single "These Eyes" long before anyone else. Did she know it was a smash right away?

Trombley: Hit records have the obvious — a great melody, a great hook — and when my mom heard "These Eyes" she just connected with the power and message of that song. To her, here was this young kid (Cummings), and he's singing about "the hurtin's on me, I will never be free." She immediately put it on the radio. Literally over the first weekend the request lines blew up.

 

CP: What was it like for you growing up amid all of these rock stars?

Trombley: It was so cool, man.... My own career is a direct result of growing up as one of Rosalie's sons. I was going to concerts a couple times a month. It was either Led Zeppelin playing Detroit, Queen or Frank Zappa.

 

CP: One of your favourite encounters was with Alice Cooper. What happened? 

Trombley: They were originally supposed to pick me up at my junior high school. I had told one friend I was having lunch with Alice Cooper — of course by noon the whole school knew. But they were late and I ran home in embarrassment. (Eventually they picked me up) and my mom was in the limo with him. Alice was sitting there in a black pinstriped gangster-type suit, yellow leather shoes and no socks. (He) could see I was a little flustered so he asked me where the kids hang out. Alice told the driver to drive by ... rolled down the window and said, "Hey, it's me Alice and Tim Trombley is here and we're going for lunch." I will never forget that.

 

CP: Your mom is facing health issues, but does she know about the award?

Trombley: Yes, she feels very honoured. The fact she's the first female recipient is very apropos. I've had a multitude of women tell me throughout the years how much inspiration my mother provided them to go after their own careers in broadcasting or the music industry.

 

— This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

Follow @dfriend on Twitter.