Detroit music industry legend Harry Balk turns 90.
A heartfelt and loving tribute to a father on his 90th birthday: What better way to exemplify honoring one’s parents?
Vicki Howard of Huntington Woods, along with other family members, is planning just such a special event on Oct. 2 for her father, Harry Balk, a real legend in the Motown music scene.
From the cozy home office of her fashion/promotions business Ta-Dah! Productions, the warm, personable 60-year-old spoke with pride about growing up in Detroit and learning street smarts and business savvy from her creative and accomplished parent.
“Other kids’ fathers were doctors, lawyers, accountants,” Howard said. “But my dad was the ‘Godfather of Detroit Music,’ so hip and cool. When I was in school, and we had a ‘show what your parent did at work’ day, my presentation involved an assembly where the popular group The Shades of Blue performed their hit, ‘Oh How Happy’ to show what my dad did!
“He was so handsome and always wore crisp, white, monogrammed shirts and even smoked monogrammed cigars! With hard work, ‘HB’ — as he was always called — was very successful in the production end of the Motown music scene. Through my dad, I got my passion for producing.”
This passion was developed in Balk at an early age. Born in Detroit’s 12th Street neighborhood, Balk, as a young man, managed the Krim Theatre in Highland Park, owned by his uncle. Howard said in order to boost business, her father held talent shows at the theater, and a consistent winner was singer Little Willie John, who became the first major talent Balk signed. His next success as a producer involved Del Shannon, with the hit song “Runaway.” Balk formed Twirl Records with business partner Irving Michanek in 1961. This Detroit business lasted until 1965. Balk then formed a new label, Impact Records, as well as a publishing company, Gomba.
In 1966, Balk discovered the Latino singer Rodriguez and, in 1969, he both started Inferno Records and closed Impact, after being hired by Motown’s Berry Gordy, where he was the first Jewish head of A&R (artists and repertoire — the division of a record label responsible for talent scouting and artistic development).
Balk started the Rare Earth label in 1969 and is credited with pushing for the release of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” despite Gordy’s reluctance. The album became the biggest success in Motown history.
One friend who knows much of Balk’s history is fellow music industry professional John Brooks of Clinton Township.
“Harry and I met in 1961 when an Italian singer I managed, Mickey Denton (his real name, Gasper Badalamenti), auditioned for Harry at his record company at 20 W. Alexandrine in Downtown Detroit,” Brooks said. “We’ve worked together and been best friends ever since. I never saw him without a hat for the first two years I knew him! Harry produced 11 top-10 records and many top 40s. He’s without a doubt one of the most respected record producers in the music business.”
Balk’s achievements influenced his daughter’s success as a producer as well. A model in her own right, Howard learned about “behind-the-scenes” work from him, and for the past 26 years, Ta-Dah! Productions has been at the forefront of presenting top-quality fashion shows and special events for malls, TV shows and corporate clients. “I’ve followed in my father’s footsteps,” she said. “Producing is my life as well.”
According to Howard, much of her father’s career took place during his many years living in California. She said he returned to Michigan in 2007.
A special event that celebrated Balk’s lifelong successful music career was the 2013 Detroit Music Awards, where he received the Distinguished Achievement Award for his body of work in the music industry.
Joel Martin, owner of 54 Sound Studios in Ferndale, emceed the event, and on the DVD of the show Martin produced, Balk is shown saying it was the most valuable and touching award he’d ever received.
“Detroit is my heart,” he said, “a wonderful town, and Motown made music history. This award is awesome! There’s no other way to describe it.” Balk’s words garnered him a standing ovation.
Martin called Balk “a visionary music producer.” Balk, he said, was a tremendous influence in his pursuing a career in music production.
“Harry made essential contributions to American — and more importantly — Detroit’s music history. I can attest to a time when a gambler with instinct, moxie and talent could achieve anything in the record business. Harry is a Detroit treasure, and his contribution will live forever.”
A special item at the 90th birthday fete is one Howard believes will create lasting memories as well.
“My dad always signed everything with ‘Guess Who Loves You?’ and a drawing of a face with a mustache and cigar. In honor of his birthday, his granddaughter is making mugs with ‘Legendary HB 90th Birthday’ on one side, and his signature and saying on the other. He said having everyone he loves together to celebrate him would be a really exciting and proud moment.”
Howard, too, showed pride as she pointed out the diamond ring she wears with the initials “HB” on it, which once belonged to her father.
“My dad gave the ring to me on my 60th birthday,” she said. “That ring, along with a mezuzah he wore that was given to him by his grandparents at his bar mitzvah, were and are very important to him.
“Dad had a hit song: ‘Hats off to Larry,’” Howard said with emotion filling her voice. “I say, Hats off to Harry! You’re one in a million, Dad. You’re a true gold record!”
By Judy Greenwald, JN Contributing Writer