Fred Reif: #RecordDet Interview


Carlton Gholz: Well, we’re here with Fred Reif and this is the second record night. Fred Reif is going to be our first interview of the night, and then we’re gonna interview Larry Gabriel, both from the Michigan area, but we’ll learn more specifics as we move on. Let’s just start off here. Fred briefly describe, who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music?  

Fred Reif: Well, I’m originally from Saginaw, Michigan and back in 1970 I was in a jug band and I was really into researching the old blues and there was an article in the Blues Unlimited Magazine out of England that Lightnin’ Slim lived in Pontiac, Michigan and they asked me if I could go and try to find him. So I did. And then from Lightin’, then it went, I brought him up and Lazy Lester for a concert at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1971. And then I started meeting people like Arthur Gunter and Port Huron, Bobo Jenkins from Detroit. And through Bobo, I got to meet Baby Boy Warren, Boogie Woogie Red, Joelle Carter, Washboard Willie, Eddie Burns, whole slew of them that were pretty popular back in the 50s and they kind of faded away cause of,  well they all blame Motown of course, so I kind of rediscovered most of them and got them gigs and got them over to Europe and then it just led from there. And Bobo and I, we used to put on some shows together and most of them are dead now, so I kind of ended it. I continued on though, kind of like with Larry McCray out of Saginaw, got him started with Lazy Lester while the McCray Brothers Band and Sherry Williams. But other than that, it kind of fizzled away in my life. I had gotten married and opened up a record store up in Saginaw and wasn’t coming down to Detroit as much. And then in 1991, I moved to Ann Arbor and it kind of got me going again and got ahold of Boogie Woogie Red and he was real ill and I put a benefit forum at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. Raised a bunch of money for him and unfortunately he passed away about three months after that. And since then, well I was touring with Lazy Lester on and off for 34 years up until he moved to California a few years ago. And that’s about it … [laugh]for the blues part of it anyways.  

Gholz: And the [inaudible 03:31] in the record store was School Kids?  

Reif: No, the record store was Black Kettle Records

Gholz: Black Kettle Records

Reif: Up in Saginaw. 

Gholz: In Saginaw

Reif: But when I moved to Ann Arbor I actually moved there cause I got a job at Tower Records as a manager and the buyer for blues and jazz and well early rock and roll, stuff like that. But that only lasted for six months cause it didn’t pay very well. And it’s expensive to live in Ann Arbor. So I had sent a resume to Steve Bergman at School Kids and he called me actually the very next day and then I worked there and he started the record label and I was the director of that. We had 66 releases out.

Gholz: What’s the state of all of that? 

Reif: Well, they went out of business in 97. 

Gholz: Right.

Reif: And he’s sort of what the label was given back, the masters to the artists. And I got some of the publishing mostly for Steven, the Caribbean part of it.  Mmm.  You know, and we recorded all kinds of music from blues to classical to jazz, a lot of jazz, rock n roll. But that ended in 97 but I had to, I actually turned 50 when that happened. So I had to figure out a whole new career and then got a job at the University of Michigan until I retired. 

I didn’t really get into the Detroit blues until 1970. And then I did the liner notes for the red and green album of Bobo Jenkins. 


Gholz: Yeah.  What was the first record or Detroit record you remember hearing? What was it? How’d you hear it and what did you think?  

Reif: Well, it was probably a Motown record, you know, even though I’m into the Detroit blues, I mean probably the first Detroit record I heard was a Motown record that I can recall, but I don’t know. I have no idea which one it was.

Gholz: Off the radio or something you would have bought or something. What have you heard at home or,  

Reif: Well probably off the radio.

Interviewer: Radio.  

Reif: You know, I mean I was buying records at the time, but, you know, mostly off the radio.

Speaker: For Saginaw radio would you have gotten CKLW up there? What would you have gotten?  

Reif: Well, we had gray radio, local stations, you know, lots of good radio.  

Speaker 3: Yeah. 

Reif: You know, a lot of the Motown was played on all radio, but W3 Soul was one of the big radio stations in Saginaw and Flint. And that’s where I heard a lot of rhythm and blues. But I didn’t really get into the Detroit blues until 1970. And then I did the liner notes for the, well what we call them, cause it was the same cover, the red and green album of Bobo Jenkins. And then the third one was a yellow. All he did was change the color.  And [laught], I could never figure that out. But, when I did the liner notes for the radio and the first one he put, he called it, ‘read back for my whole new life story.’  So I guess I told his new life story. 

Gholz: Your life story. Motown is known around the world. As we’ve already said, describe one aspect of Detroit music history that you wished got more attention.  I can think of the obvious answer you might give, but maybe there’s something else you think.

Reif: Well, the blues…Detroit blues.

Gholz: What about it specifically? What would you want to make sure…

Reif:  We’ll see. A lot of it was getting played over in Europe. I went to England with Lightnin’ Slim in February of 72 and while I was there, I met Eddie Urns who was already there with the same promoter. So we hung out for most of the five weeks I was there cause he did a lot of the same gigs at Lightnin’ Slim and he briefed me in on what was happening, you know, in the Detroit blue scene. And you know, it wasn’t getting much play. Other than John Lee Hooker. 

Gholz: Right. 

Reif: But a lot of that it took when he moved to California.  And then also the country music, after reading Craig Mackey’s book it totally blew my mind. I had no idea a lot of that was happening here.  And the jazz, it looked like it got a lot of play. But after reading Lars and Jim Gallard’s ‘Before There Was Motown’, I really had no idea that a lot of those musicians were from Detroit… so

Saginaw, Detroit and Michigan region

Gholz: Yeah. Yeah. What do you think we do? I mean, you’ve kind of already answered this in a way, but what do you think we lose if do not preserve, you know, musical history period and Saginaw, Detroit, the Michigan region, more specifically, what do you think we lose if we don’t save that regional history?  

Reif: Well, you’ll lose a lot. I mean, once it’s gone and it’s gone. I mean I buy and sell, I go to the thrift shops every day looking for records. And you know, a lot of those you find in the thrift shops now, and if someone doesn’t buy them there, they’re going to get tossed in the dumpster, then they’re gone forever. And you know, a lot of the blues they’re in, they only made like Bobo. we only made a thousand copies of those records and you know, once they’re gone and no one is… I read somewhere that only 17% of all records were reproduced on CD. So just right there, they’re disappearing. And you know, the Detroit and Michigan, as I found out after I wrote my book here on the history of Saginaw on music, Saginaw has a very rich history of music, you know, and so a lot of people tell me, I didn’t ever do that, that all these people came from Saginaw, like Sonny Stitt, Stevie Wonder, even though his mother moved to Detroit, I think when he was six months old [laugh].


Gholz: Right. 

Reif: So he probably don’t remember. 

Gholz: But you’ll claim him though?  

Reif: Well, they do, you know, like Bay City claims Madonna. 

Gholz:  Right. Let’s talk about just for a minute. Let’s talk about the “All Of Me”. You recently self published a book, called, “All Of Me”. Can we get the full title so I don’t, it’s all on one. The history of the musicians of Saginaw, Michigan, 1850s to 1950s. And I’ve looked at it a little bit this morning. I haven’t had this evening. I haven’t had a chance to read the entire thing. Just sent some pictures here. I hope to sit down and read it. What did you learn that you didn’t know already about Saginaw? I mean, you grew up there, you cared about the music, you’ve already described a long history, musical history, some of this, the materials I assume you already had in your collection. So what did you learn that was new other than just synthesizing stuff that you already know?  

Reif:  Well, as I was finishing the book and I ended up in the 1950s I wanted to do a hundred years in there somehow. So I said, well, I’ll start at 1850s. But since I finished this, I’ve been finding out more and more about the R&B out of Saginaw and country music.  And after reading Craig Mackey’s book on the country in Detroit, at the beginning of that book, a lot of it starts in Saginaw where a lot of these guys were on WKNX, a local radio station that there was a Michigan hayride so they called it and you know, saw a lot of those guys like Little Jimmy DickensRoy Acolf discovered him in Saginaw. And the same with R&B. Now I’ve been finding, through the ‘northern soul’ genre of music, a lot of these people, northern soul records came out of sight and I had no idea. I had even no idea. I never even heard of Northern Soul up until, well, a friend of mine in high school was in a band in the sixties called EJ and the Echoes, and it was basically, they were all white guys, except they had a black lead singer.  Well, three or four of their records are way up the charts on the Northern soul charts in England. And I went, what is this about? So I got a hold of these guys and I got them back in the studio to record some new stuff with the original band.

Gholz: When was this?

Reif: About four years ago.

Goals: Okay.

Reif: Unfortunately… never got them back in there. So we got about eight songs down, except they’re not done. 

Gholz:  Oh, I see. 

Reif: And I got some Northern Soul people in England waiting for it. And they still have the beautiful harmony that they have for peace, harmony singing and other groups like that from Saginaw, all that. I knew nothing about that I heard, you know, from the Northern Soul thing. And of course the jazz was Sonny Stitt and people that he played with and Saginaw, all that, never made it big, you know, during his time. But previous to that, Gerald Marks who wrote the song, ‘All of Me’, an American classic, Danny Russo,  ‘Toot, Toot, Tootsie’ and he got basically his start here at the Oreo Terrace, which became the Latin Quarter or something by the Fisher Theater. 

Gholz: Right.  

Reif: I know that until after I finished…

Gholz: They just tore it down a few years ago, if  I’m not mistaken. Right on the Boulevard there…

Reif: Right? 

Gholz: Yeah. I mean, two, three years ago. 

Reif: Yeah. We’ll see. A lot of these bands, musicians were from Saginaw, but they got their big start in Detroit.  

Gholz:  What’s the biggest difference? But you know, just I’ve been to Saginaw, I’ve driven, I’ve sat, you know, there’s a coffee shop there. I’ve stopped, I’ve heard the song, the Paul Simon and Garfunkel song where they discuss Saginaw. What’s the one difference between or one comparison, one difference between Detroit and in Saginaw. How are they connected? 


Reif: General Motors.

Gholz: General Motors. There you go. 

Reif: Except two word answer.  There’s no general motors in Saginaw anymore. And there was like about eight plants. So that was the downfall of Saginaw. It’s lost half of its population. And it’s just finally now that it is beginning to come back but in the health field. So Saginaw was like the lumber capital of the world at one time, back in the late 1800s, then it became salt mines and coal mines and they put all our interest in that and then the automobiles and that wall went out. So now it’s the health Corporations or whatever. So it seems like now it’s coming back through that.  

 Gholz: You were part of our Oral History Project, we digitize some things that you had and we provide, we let a snippet of the Arthur Gunter right interview that you did in Port Huron and whatever year you were, where you were there. Can you just tell us a little bit about your… you said a little bit earlier about your blues, you know, oral histories and what you’ve done, but where are you with that? We’ve talked about this before about a book, where are you in that process and yeah, where are you with that?  

Reif:  Well, it’s actually gotten pretty close to, I’m finishing that. I just needed, you know, I had all the facts down for all the interviews I did, but I need a few more stories, you know, funny stories or whatever. They’re all funny. So I look up with old friends who kind of remind me of them sometimes cause you know, you forget them after awhile. So, just a little funny stories, you know, they’d say my brother would say, ‘remember when Bobo, and at about eight of his buddies came up in a Cadillac’ and they all had suits on and they came to my parents’ house. Scared everybody. And not that they did anything to scare anybody, but you know, they all came into this big black Cadillac and parked out in front of the house and we were supposed to play, I had Bobo in his band playing at a concert in a park. That’s where I was. Well, of course Bobo was late, always late. He always showed up at the end because he wanted to be on last. But,anyway, it’s just stories like that. I just need, you know, more stories. And then, hopefully my goal is they have it out next year, 2015.

Gholz: What drives you to write this material and what drives you to write.  Where did you learn to write? Where does the writing come from in your life? Cause the music sounds like you heard you had good radio and Saginaw was bumping it, when you’re growing up. So that makes all sense. So what about the writing? What is that?  

Reif: Well, yeah, back in the late sixties, like I was saying earlier, there was an article in Blues Unlimited and at that time that was the only blues magazine and they were based out of England. So they asked me after I kind of found Lightnin’ and they wanted me to do a story on him. And then after I did that, after finding all these other guys, I was writing basically for them. And then for Jefferson out of Sweden and there, there was about four or five magazines in Europe before Living Blues came out in the United States. And I’ve never written for Living Blues. They had never asked me, but the European made magazines did. And that’s basically how I got into writing.

Gholz: Do you enjoy it?

Reif:  I do now. Back then, I never thought of myself as a writer, but it was the only way some of this stuff was gonna, you know, cause I had all the information, so somebody had to write it and I looked back at some of those articles and they look terrible to me. I guess. You know, you’d get better as you go.  [laugh]

Gholz:   Last question here. Advise us. What should the DSC, what should we be doing and concentrating on the next, couple of years for what should we be doing with ourselves?  


Reif:  Well, it looks like you’re heading in the right direction. I’d just like to see more of the blues and now I see the country and there’s also a big Caribbean, group of people here. Back in, I don’t know when he came here originally, 69 or 70, Hugh Board from the Trinidad, Tripoli Steel Band. He brought his, basically when he moved to Ypsilanti, all the members of this band and kind of ended up moving here. So there’s a big steel drum, a faction here in Detroit that I don’t think a lot of people know about it.  You know, there’s all kinds of different genres I guess. So yeah, I’m learning more and more, you know, like in Saginaw there’s a Hispanic, you know, Latin, big market for it they have big dances and all that. No one’s ever written about the ant and Question Mark and the Mysterians were from there. So that’s where I was always wondering, I was going to put the question, what was the biggest selling record out of Saginaw, you know, “All of Me’ or ‘96 Tears’. Yeah, probably ‘96 Tears’ because it came at a time, but ‘All of Me’ has been recorded by so many different people. So, but I just think, you know, more the R&B and jazz and I mean, you seem to be going in the right direction.

Gholz: So no improvement then. Well, I don’t know.  [laugh]  This is the Detroit Sound Conservancy. We want to thank Fred Reif for coming down and allowing us to hear some great music from the 40s and 50s telling us about his book, “All of Me” which we hope to bring to the Detroit Public Library. We’re going to work on that. So that’s, so we’ll at least be able to check it out from the library, if not, purchasing it from him. And what’s the best way to reach you, Fred? Do you have a website or what’s the best way to do all of that?  

Reif:   Well through email.

Goals: Through email.

Reif: But the website I couldn’t, it’s a long, it’s so long. You know, it’s like W, I,  Z and then it’s my name. I don’t know.  

Gholz: Contact us, we’ll get you to Fred Reif. Thank you so much for being here tonight.  

Reif: Thank you. 

One Response to “Fred Reif: #RecordDet Interview”

  1. Michael Burns

    Mr. Reif,

    We met a couple times; first via Steve – Travelin’ Blues – Detroit’s Greek Town Blues Man and then via Dale Robertson.

    I intend to be in the audience during your visit to the West Gate Library in Ann Arbor on the 22nd.

    Michael Burns

    BTW – I was born in Saginaw, MI as well


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