Radio pioneer Robin Seymour brings his memoir and his memories back to Detroit.
Photos courtesy of Robin Seymour
If not for conversations between two residents of a senior living community in San Antonio, the story of one of the legendary careers in the Detroit music and radio scene in the early days of rock ’n roll may have only been preserved in the memory of the man who lived it. Retired lawyer and journalist Carolyn Marie Rosenthal, who was on the receiving end of those great stories, would have none of that.
Her spry Jewish neighbor, 93, just happened to be one of the pioneers of Detroit rock ’n roll radio and a trailblazer who helped put Motown on the map — Seymour Altman. Who? If you’re a Baby Boomer, prepare to have wonderful memories of your youth jogged because Seymour Altman was to a coming-of-age Detroit audience better known as disc jockey and local TV’s Swingin’ Time host Robin Seymour, the name he still goes by.
In The DJ that Launched a 1,000 Hits — the Story of Robin Seymour (with Carolynn Rosenthal), you learn Robin wasn’t just an eyewitness to the birth of Motown, he played a major role in its success. “On the air,” says Robin, “no one else in Detroit was playing so-called ‘black’ music to white audiences except me.”
Host Robin Seymour’s Teen Town and Swingin’ Time dance television shows, modeled after American Bandstand and which originally aired on Channel 9 in Windsor, were one of the first stops for Berry Gordy to launch the careers and television debuts of Little Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson.
Retired Detroit advertising executive Mike Seltzer, a self-proclaimed radio history fanatic and friend of Robin Seymour, volunteered his publishing expertise to help Robin and Carolyn memorialize his fascinating life story in print.
Robin, who moved from Phoenix to San Antonio in 2016 to be closer to his daughters Debby and Jenny in Texas, is preparing for a return visit to Michigan. Today, Thursday, Sept. 12, the Motown Museum will host Robin, who will be part of a meet-and-greet and book signing. He’ll be honored and will reunite with many Detroit radio legends at a radio reunion on Saturday, Sept. 14, at Novi’s Suburban Collection Showplace. Both events are open to the public.
Robin is proud of his Jewish heritage, which he touches on in his book, and was more than happy to delve even further into his Detroit Jewish upbringing during a phone interview arranged by Seltzer.
He was born Seymour Samuel Altman on March 9, 1926. He can’t recall where his showbiz name came from, but it’s the moniker he took to the airwaves for the first time on July 1, 1947, at WKMH, the former call letters of WKNR.
His parents, Clara and Herman Altman, immigrated to America in the early 1900s as youngsters. Clara’s family came from Romania and Herman’s left the Ukraine to escape the pogroms. His folks, who kept a kosher home, spent their entire lives in Detroit and are buried in Beth Moses Cemetery in Roseville.
Robin loved Hebrew school and recalls two Detroit synagogues from his childhood, the “Blaine Shul” and the “Taylor Shul.” Because of the generosity of a Rabbi Lawton, Robin was allowed to prepare for his bar mitzvah even though his parents could not afford the $5 weekly tuition.
His bar mitzvah celebration took place in the Altman’s downstairs flat on Taylor Street. “After weeks of cooking, our flat was decked out with tables,” Robin shares in his book. “They were lined up end-to-end and groaned with food and drink. I got 10 fountain pens, two watches and $100 cash. I never felt so rich.”
Like many of his Greatest Generation, Robin put his life on hold during WWII. After graduating from Central High School and turning 18, he was drafted into the Army and, in May of 1944, began a two-year stint during which he would be a witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
“We were near Steyr, Austria, the day after the war in Europe ended,” said Robin, who earned a Bronze Star. “The Germans left the nearby concentration camp gates open and just walked away. We saw a group of 20 or 30 walking, starving skeletons, pitifully wandering, helpless as their eyes bulged from their sockets, filthy black and white striped rags hanging from their bodies — a sample of Germany’s leftovers. I stood in disbelief, not able to move for several minutes.”
A stint on Armed Forces Radio in Frankfort, Germany, further solidified Robin’s career ambitions. After his discharge, he would cut short his college education at Wayne University in 1947 to accept an on-air opportunity at WKMH, “a new station located in Dearborn,” later becoming WKNR Keener 13 in 1963. It was a 90-minute combined streetcar and bus ride to the studio for his first professional job that paid 90 cents an hour.
Robin Seymour was more than an entertainer who helped launch musical careers, he was an innovator. In helping popularize sock hops, Motown concerts at the Fox Theater and introducing listener feedback as a sales tool, his career is arguably unparalleled in a golden era of Detroit broadcasting.
Over the course of three decades, Metro Detroit and Windsor youth tuned into Bobbin’ with the Robin on WKMH, WKNR, The Big 8 CKLW and on television. He was, as author Carolyn Rosenthal says, “the right person, in the right place, at the right time.”
Robin Seymour will be at the Motown Museum from 3-5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, during studio tours; info at motownmuseum.org or (313) 875-2264. “The Last Radio Reunion,” takes place 1-6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi. $35. Leealancreative.com/reunion.html. Find Seymour’s book on Amazon.com.