DETROIT — Rosalie Trombley, the golden-eared tastemaker who became one of North America's most powerful radio programmers, died Tuesday of complications from Alzheimer's disease, her family said. She was 82.
As music director at Windsor's 50,000-watt CKLW-AM across the Detroit River, the unassuming Ontario, Canada, native was a music-industry force starting in the late '60s — breaking hits, playing musical kingmaker and turning the station into an influential continental player.
"Rosalie was an icon, a trailblazer and our friend," Bob Seger said in a statement. "Through her hard work and incredible instincts, she achieved a rare level of influence and power in music. When she got behind your record, other stations would follow suit. She was literally a gatekeeper to national success and we were so fortunate to have her support, especially on many of our early records. She was an integral part of our journey and we are eternally grateful. We will miss her."
Born in Leamington, Ontatio, Rosalie Trombley moved back to the town about five years ago and was in an assisted living facility there at the time of her death.
"She just had this innate sense for what artists, what songs, could have mass appeal," said her son Tim Trombley. "The power of AM radio back then was really immeasurable. It was a pretty special time."
Trombley's adventurous song picks — from rock to R&B — were boosted by the broad reach of CKLW, a station heard across Canada and nearly two dozen U.S. states at night. Other radio programmers came to follow her lead.
"It was nothing to pick up the phone and hear 'Hi, this is Bob Smith from Idaho, and I'm getting all kinds of calls at my radio station for this record they're hearing on your radio station. Tell me about "These Eyes" by the Guess Who,'" she recounted to the Free Press in 2003. "It was like, 'Wow.'"
Trombley — "the most powerful woman in popdom," as the Free Press described her in 1971— gave many mainstream radio listeners their first taste of music from Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Funkadelic and other Detroit-related acts. And she helped introduce American audiences to burgeoning Canadian artists, including the Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot, Bachman Turner-Overdrive and Paul Anka.
"I just believe that Detroit had real good ears, the listeners, when it came to the music they heard on the radio," she said in 2003. "The records the way they would break, the way they would sell."
Having arrived in Windsor in 1963, Trombley started at CKLW with a part-time job as a weekend switchboard operator. Eventually, she took a role in the station's record library, and by 1967 was music director.
During a global rock-music revolution, she was a conduit to AM radio and the Top 40 airwaves. And despite CKLW's Canadian home base, the station was regarded in the industry as a Detroit outlet.
"Basically (Detroit) was becoming known as testing the true rock 'n' roll records," Trombley said.
She also took cues from black radio in Detroit, helping break artists such as the O'Jays and the Foundations to pop audiences. In 1971, she was among the first programmers who helped make a hit out of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," a record initially resisted by Motown chief Berry Gordy.
In 1974, when she heard Detroit R&B station WJLB spinning an Elton John album cut, Trombley added the track to CKLW's rotation. "Bennie and the Jets" instantly ignited the station's request lines, and John's record label was soon convinced to release it as his next single.
"A week later, Elton called her from England and wanted to know the whole story," son Tim Trombley said.
Trombley's veto power was as important as her thumbs-up, and that make-or-break influence was immortalized by Seger in the vaguely sardonic 1973 tribute "Rosalie": "She's got the plastic/ It comes from all the corners of the world/ So fantastic/ She's everybody's favorite little record girl."
But Trombley, who once called herself "a lyric freak," was a bona fide Seger fan, embracing his music for the CKLW airwaves.
"It didn't matter what it was by Bob," she said. "He didn't miss too often."
Seger and Trombley ultimately forged a friendship, often meeting up at Windsor's Hacienda restaurant to talk music. Their connection, she said, came from their similar, low-key personalities.
"I always felt comfortable around an artist that I could trust, that would respect the privacy I kept in my private life," she said.
Trombley's knack for selecting hits was part intuition, part people skills, part dedicated research. She forged tight relationships with record-shop operators in Detroit, both white and Black, keeping an ear to the ground new records with bubbling sales.
"If I picked music just to suit my taste, I wouldn't have my job," she said in 1971. "I lean heavily toward soul music. I find it hard personally to be critical of any Diana Ross record, for instance."
In a rollicking record and radio universe with its share of sketchy characters, Trombley prided herself on her clean way of doing business.
"The record promoters and record companies know better than to offer me payola," she told the Free Press in '71. "They also know not to offer me a joint. I'm too square, too straight for that sort of thing."
Jo-Jo Shutty MacGregor, who was hired at CKLW in 1975 to become the first female helicopter traffic reporter in North America, called Trombley an important mentor whose power as a woman in a male-dominated industry commanded respect.
"Wasn’t it amazing that an amazing 50,000-watt powerhouse like CKLW would choose a female to head that music department? MacGregor said. "It really says a lot.
"What a wonderful spirit she was. Nobody has made a mark like she has."
Trombley loved Detroit and spent much time in the city, visiting clubs such as the Grande Ballroom to catch rock and soul performers.
"If the latest R&B act coming up was playing, she'd go over," said Tim Trombley. "She was accepted with open arms by the black music community."
Tim Trombley said Wednesday that his mother's open music sensibility helped create a special time on the airwaves.
"It was just magical, the way it was programmed," he said. "All this diverse repertoire somehow worked on this one radio station."
Trombley's CKLW reign from 1967 to 1984 was followed by stints at Detroit's WLTI-FM and Toronto oldies station CKEY. She ultimately returned to Windsor and worked in the marketing department at the now-Caesars Windsor before retiring in 2008.
Son Tim Trombley said his mother's proudest work was her family. She was a single mom raising two sons and a daughter.
"She loved her job, but did what she could to raise her three kids," Tim Trombley said. "She had this cool job and this great influence, but in her mind, that was secondary to raising us."
Trombley is survived by her son Tim Trombley and his wife, Renee Trombley; son Todd Trombley; daughter Diane Lauzon and her husband, David Lauzon; and grandson Bobby Lauzon.
A private service will be held for family members and friends.