Rosalie Trombley, Who Picked Hits and Made Stars, Dies at 82

Rosalie Trombley, Who Picked Hits and Made Stars, Dies at 82 1

As music director for CKLW, a major radio station in the Detroit market, she furthered the careers of Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, the Temptations and many others.

Whatever story you have about the high point of your junior high school years, Tim Trombley has a better one. The rocker Alice Cooper once picked him up at his school in a limousine to take him to lunch.

That was one of the perks of having Rosalie Trombley for a mother.

From 1967 into the early 1980s, Ms. Trombley was the music director for CKLW-AM, a radio station based in Windsor, Ontario, with a signal so powerful that it was heard in dozens of states in the U.S., dominating the markets of Detroit and other Midwestern cities in the days before the emergence of FM. A 1971 headline in The Detroit Free Press called her “The Most Powerful Lady in Pop Music,” because her tastes went a long way toward determining what was played on the station, which in turn went a long way toward determining what was played in the rest of North America.

Sometimes, Mr. Trombley related in a phone interview, his mother would bring demo records home, and he would be allowed to play them. She noticed that he was playing one quite a lot: Mr. Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen.”

“She made it known to the label, to Warner Bros., ‘Tim has been playing this song over and over,’” Mr. Trombley said, and she slipped it into CKLW’s rotation. In late 1970 it became Mr. Cooper’s breakout hit. And so Mr. Cooper, a Detroit native, took young Tim to lunch one day as a thank-you.

“I knew that mom had a really cool job,” Mr. Trombley said.

Ms. Trombley died on Nov. 23 at a long-term care center in Leamington, Ontario, where she had been living for some time. She was 82. Mr. Trombley said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Ms. Trombley seemed an unlikely starmaker. She was a single mother of three when she started at CKLW as a part-time switchboard operator. The Free Press once wrote that she “looks like Doris Day’s next-door neighbor.” But she was, as newspapers often described her, “the lady with the golden ear” who, with her no-nonsense demeanor, could hold her own in the male-dominated music business of the day.

The list of stars who owed her a debt of gratitude was long.

“You’d come in in the morning,” Keith Radford, a former newsman at the station, said in an interview for a video series produced by Radio Trailblazers, an organization promoting women in Canadian radio, “and there’d be big bouquets of flowers at the front desk, from Elton John or the Rolling Stones.”

Ms. Trombley would hold court on Thursdays for record promoters who hoped to get their new songs onto CKLW’s “Big 30” playlist.

“If they wanted the record really bad, they would bring the act with them,” Johnny Williams, a former D.J., said in the video. “So it wasn’t unusual every Thursday to see the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis Jr.”

One artist who made such a pilgrimage was Tony Orlando, who in the video recalled that Ms. Trombley had heard him out that day and offered him an invitation.

“Rosalie said, ‘I’ll tell you what: If your next record comes within the ballpark of a commercial record, a playable Top 40 record, because you took the time to come here — but only if it has the goods — I’ll give it consideration big time,’” he said. “And that next record was ‘Yellow Ribbon’” — that is, Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Ole Oak Tree,” the top-selling record of 1973. “And she was the first to put it on the air.”

Detroit Free Press

Rosalie Helen Gillan was born on Sept. 18, 1939, in Leamington. Her father, Shell, was a general foreman at the Ford Motor Company of Canada, and her mother, Katherine (Piper) Gillan, was a switchboard operator.

After graduating from high school, she worked at Bell Canada for a time. She married Clayton Trombley in 1958. She took the switchboard job at CKLW in late 1962, working in that capacity for several years and, as The Vancouver Sun put it in a 1973 article about her, “inadvertently picking up the politics of the music business simply by learning to handle sometimes troublesome record-promotion people who arrived at the station to ply their wares.”

Around 1968, Ms. Trombley and her husband separated (they later divorced), and at about the same time she was offered the chance to take over for the station’s record librarian, who was going on maternity leave. The station’s program director soon took note of her ear for hits and made her music director, a job she held, Tim Trombley said, until she was laid off in the early 1980s in a downsizing effort.

Ms. Trombley didn’t rely only on her own tastes; she would call R&B stations in the area to see what they were playing, which led her to give CKLW’s 50,000 watts of exposure to Black artists. She similarly boosted the careers of Canadian artists like Gordon Lightfoot and the Guess Who, as well as a number of Detroit-area stars, including Bob Seger.

“Seger never had any problem getting on CKLW,” she told The Detroit Free Press in 2004 when Mr. Seger was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “Look at the songs. Listen to the lyrics. I’m a lyric freak. When someone is saying something in a song, I can’t be the only person interested in it.”

Well, Mr. Seger almost never had any problem getting on the station. Some of his new material came her way in the early 1970s, and she panned it. He sat down and wrote a song about her, called “Rosalie,” that had a winking snide streak.

“He was pissed off when he wrote that song about me,” she said. “He told me!”

Payola — offering payoffs to get a song played — was part of the radio business during Ms. Trombley’s reign, and her son said it was common knowledge in the industry that she was a single mother, so some promoters would make it subtly known to her that there was money available.

“She made it less subtly known,” he said, “that if they wanted to continue to meet with her every week, that was not something that was going to get their record on the radio.”

She had her musical favorites, especially Neil Diamond. But that didn’t necessarily win him radio time.

“I’m not playing his current release,” she told The Sun in 1973, tactfully not naming it, “because it looks like a midchart record, and I won’t go with it when I know out front that it’s only midchart.”

In addition to her son Tim, she is survived by another son, Todd; a daughter, Diane Lauzon; and a grandson.

In 2016 Ms. Trombley received a special Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. Radio Trailblazers has an annual award recognizing women who have “blazed new trails in radio.” She received the first, in 2005, and it is now called simply the Rosalie Award.