The Dick Wagner Memorial Concert

The Dick Wagner Remember The Child Memorial Concert
January 10, 2015
The Filmore Theatre, Detroit, MI

By Ryan Sparks

The evening  of January 10th, 2015 will firmly go down in the annals of rock history as the night that a couple of thousand fans, along with a star studded cast of musicians and friends, came together to honor and celebrate the life and music of Dick Wagner, who was known to all as The Maestro of Rock. Held at the majestic Fillmore Theatre in Detroit Michigan, The Dick Wagner  “Remember The Child” Memorial Concert was not only billed as a celebration of the man’s music, but proceeds from the show went to benefit The Children’s Miracle Network as well.   

Wagner sadly passed away at the end of July 2014, but over the course of his fifty year career the legendary musician left his mark on literally millions of fans before leaving us. Guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, producer, bandleader, award winning author and humanitarian, you name it, The Maestro did it. Long known around the Detroit and Michigan music scene, Wagner first rose to prominence with The Bossmen, The Frost and briefly Ursa Major, before going on to becoming known as the “go to” session musician, thanks in large part to his relationship with producer Bob Ezrin. A short stint with Lou Reed eventually became a springboard for his legendary collaborations with shock rocker Alice Cooper, beginning in 1975 with Cooper’s theatrical masterpiece Welcome To My Nightmare. The partnership was a fruitful one as the duo went on to write over 50 songs together, with the most recent collaboration being the gorgeous ballad “Something to Remember Me By”, which was featured on Cooper’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare released in 2011. In addition to Cooper and Reed, Wagner lent his prodigious talents to over 350 albums, either playing or writing with artists as diverse as Air Supply, Meat Loaf, Kiss, Peter Gabriel, Aerosmith and Burton Cummings, to name just a handful. In 2013 Dick wrote the stirring song “If I Had The Time (I Could Change The World)” and gathered many of his musician friends to record the song for The St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad), Trini Lopez, Elliot Easton (The Cars), Danny Seraphine (Chicago), Lee Sklar and Fred Mandel all lent their talents for a great cause.

The tribute concert, spearheaded by Susan Michelson, Dick’s manager and business partner for the past ten years, was simply a rock ‘n roll event that any true fan could not afford to miss. Although the music didn’t start until almost 8pm, there was plenty to take in beforehand. In addition to a well-stocked merch table, fans were invited to peruse a veritable plethora of rock and sports memorabilia that was up for grabs in the silent auction. As with the concert itself, all profits from the silent auction were donated to the Children’s Miracle Network and Beaumont Children’s Hospital. From there fans were treated to a screening of the award winning documentary film Louder Than Love – The Grande Ballroom Story. Produced and directed by Tony D’Annunzio, all I can say is, if you haven’t seen this magnificent and fascinating glimpse into the Detroit music scene circa the late 60’s and the countless list of influential bands that played at the Grande, then you are missing out big time! Featuring performance clips and interviews from Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, The MC5, John Sinclair, The Who, Mark Farner and of course The Maestro himself, this film gets behind the scenes and really captures the grit and grime of the Motor City music scene in all it’s hard rock glory. It was also great to see that Russ Gibb, the original founder of The Grande was in attendance.

Off to the show itself. Emcee’d by Detroit’s own “Doc of Rock”, radio DJ Doug Podell, the concert was divided up into two parts. Fans were given a programme of the evening’s festivities upon entering, so everyone knew what to expect in advance. Over twenty of The Maestro’s songs would be performed by the house band, which essentially was made up of Dick’s touring band and they would be augmented by some of Detroit’s finest musicians that have ever graced the stage. Glancing at the guest performer list was like looking at a rock ‘n roll history book and guys like Farner, Brad Whitford (Aerosmith), Derek St. Holmes (Ted Nugent), Jimmie Bones (Kid Rock), Johnny “Bee” Badanjek (Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels), along with Dick’s son Robert Wagner, were going to take us to school big time!

After the welcome messages were delivered, which also included some words from legendary rock producer Jack Douglas, motivational speaker and author John Bradshaw appeared onstage and shared his memories and recollections about his long-time friendship with Dick. Dick’s songs were used extensively for Bradshaw’s “inner child” workshops and one composition in particular, “Remember The Child” stood out so much that it became a major theme song for one of Bradshaw’s PBS shows. Just before exiting the stage he stated what many of Dick’s friends and family already know and that was “We may never see the likes of him again.”

Relative newcomer and Wagner protégé Maryann Cotton, flew in from Denmark and opened the show with a bang with a “Dick Wagner” medley that included fragments of a new song that he co-wrote with Dick entitled “My Funeral Song (I will Be Remembered)”, “Beth” from Kiss and Alice Cooper’s “Dept Of Youth”. If you haven’t heard of Maryann Cotton, then you’re probably not alone as I’m sure many music fans on this side of the pond haven’t yet had the chance to see this young rocker in action, but rest assured the man’s time is coming. Before he passed away Dick was still guiding the aspiring rocker’s career by co-writing and producing his upcoming record. I have been told that the project is going forward and hopefully it should be released by the end of the year. From there it was right into the high octane rhythm and blues scorcher “On The Road”. Originally recorded by one of Dick’s first band’s The Bossmen, the duet between Al Jacquez (Savage Grace) and Scott Morgan from The Rational’s had to be one of top highlights of the first half of the show, and yet we were only two songs in! The wild card of the evening was delivered by two Michigan based girls, who go by the name of The Accidentals. Although barely out of their teens, they delivered a superb violin and cello version of The Frost’s “Through The Eyes Of Love”. The ovation they received at the song’s conclusion was certainly well deserved.

Another one of Dick’s musical discoveries was up next. Miss Wensday, a Rhode Island based singer who took the stage and served up couple of Alice Cooper / Dick Wagner compositions. Her stirring version of the Cooper classic “Only Women Bleed” was a definite highlight, as was her beautiful ballad “After You”, a song written by Dick and recorded by Wensday on her Torch Rock album from a few years back. Accompanied by Grammy Award musician Paul Brown on the keyboards, this tender song and its lyrical content definitely struck an emotional chord. With Wensday still at the mic the band also tore through a sizzling version of “Devil’s Food/ Black Widow”. After Wensday left the stage another Michigan rocker, Marshall Crenshaw took the stage to close out the first half, with three tracks from The Bossmen / Frost period of Dick’s career. Ever the consummate pro Crenshaw made it to the show, but missed the pre-show run through. He admitted to not knowing the chorus and the bridge on “Baby Boy”, but in the end nobody cared, as he ripped off some blistering solo’s on this song as well as |Sweet Lady Love” and “Sunshine”, which brought the first half to a close.

Anticipation was certainly running high for the second half of the show in which Dick’s son Robert, would take the stage along with Brad Whitford, Derek St. Holmes and finally Mark Farner to close things out. After the intermission was over, a poignant video tribute “Remembering Dick Wagner” was played on the video screen over the stage in which Farner, Alice Cooper, Suzi Quatro and Lita Ford were among the many musicians who left their video messages for Dick.

If there is such a thing as being a chip off the old block, then Robert Wagner certainly fits that description perfectly. Clad in black, the Austin based rocker came out and commanded the stage with all of the swagger and bravado you’d expect from a frontman who has a shit ton of stage experience under his belt. He worked the crowd effortlessly urging them “Get up Detroit, it’s Saturday night”. He and the band, which at one point now included Jimmie Bones on keys, Drew Abbott (Bob Seger) on guitar and drummer Danny Seraphine, showcased some of the strongest material from his Father’s songbook. “Black As Night”, “Another Twist Of The Knife” and the majestic and apropos “Motor City Showdown”, were all delivered flawlessly. The most stirring moment of the show, without a doubt had to be Robert’s version of “Remember The Child”. The song which was penned by Dick and written from the viewpoint of a child who has experienced abuse, has to go down as Dick’s crowning achievement. The fact that it was chosen by Bradshaw to be the theme song for his mid 80’s PBS series “Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child” means that millions of people have been touched by this beautiful composition. Robert, accompanied by Paul Brown on piano, hit this one out of the park. You could feel the love engulf the room and somewhere up there you knew that his Dad was looking down on him from the heavens with a smile on his face.

No sooner had Robert left the stage and the emotions had barely settled, when Whitford and St. Holmes took the stage with the band to deliver a live version of the last song that Dick ever recorded entitled “I’ve Seen It All”. The song with the exception of Dick’s vocals was incomplete at the time of his passing, so Suzy recruited both Brad and Derek to contribute the guitar work and the track was finished towards the end of last year. Hearing Dick’s vocals but not seeing him onstage was certainly bitter sweet, but man did Whitford and St. Holmes do the man proud as they took center stage and traded off solos. From there, Robert was back onstage and leading the troops once again, as together with Brad and Derek the band launched into the Aerosmith version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’”, which by now everyone should know that both Dick and fellow guitarist Steve Hunter were the ones who contributed the scorching solo’s on this early ‘smith classic.

After a brief pause, the evening’s headliner, the legendary Mark Farner took the stage to bring the festivities to a close. His four song mini set was comprised of a couple of Frost classic’s in “Rock ‘n Roll Music”, “Mystery Man”, along with Dick’s “I’d Take The Bullet For You”, before he wrapped it up with the Grand Funk classic, “I’m Your Captain/ Closer To Home”. Mark and Dick had often spoke of the level of respect that they had for one another. Before Mark went on to superstardom with Grand Funk, he got his start in The Bossmen, and although he was only in the band for a short period he has often spoke of the things that Dick taught him while they were together. The fact that Mark was the first one on board for the tribute concert just further demonstrates the level of love and respect that he had for the man, and really there was no better man for the job to close things out. Farner’s voice has stood the test of time and he sounds as good as he ever has. What was somewhat surprising, was just how well his voice was suited to handle these songs, especially “Mystery Man” and “I’d Take The Bullet for You”. Sporting a shit eating grin, Mark certainly seemed to be enjoying himself, playing some guitar and commanding the stage as he did. He added a nice touch by dedicating his final song, “I’m Your Captain”, to the troops and “all of our brother’s and sister’s laying their asses on the line, so that our asses can have a good time tonight.”

Everyone was back onstage, and I mean everyone, for the final song of the night, “Welcome To My Nightmare”. Both Robert and Maryann Cotton handled the vocals as extended solos were indulged in, high fives exchanged and confetti strings launched onto the stage. At the conclusion as many musicians as possible gathered together for a final bow and just like that, over four hours after it had begun, the party was over.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the Dick Wagner “Remember The Child” Memorial Concert was an event that was not to be missed, but for those that did, they can take comfort in the fact that the whole show was filmed for a future DVD release. I have been to hundreds of shows but this one will definitely go down as something very special. It was a beautiful concert from start to finish and everyone who was involved, from the musicians to the people behind the scenes who made it all possible, should take pride in the fact that they made this concert one for the ages.

I tracked down Suzy at the end of the show and as we hugged she asked “How did you like it?” At that point I was still at a loss for words and all I could muster was “Dick would have loved this.” Words were and still are hard to come by. It was really that magical.

Photo’s courtesy of Richard Blondy, Marty Rickard and Sue Plummer