'Girl with the golden ear': Radio hitmaker Rosalie Trombley dies at 82
Rosalie Trombley with Paul and Linda McCartney
David Friend, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, November 24, 2021 3:05PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, November 24, 2021 3:24PM EST
Canada's rock radio pioneer Rosalie Trombley, celebrated for her impeccable ability to sense a mega-hit and put it on the airwaves, has died.
Her family says in a statement that Trombley died peacefully on Tuesday at age 82.
“Mom possessed an innate sense for music and could hear a hit from a mile away,” her son, Tim Trombley, said in a statement issued Wednesday.
“But more than that, she had the ability to connect with music from a multitude of artists across many genres. Although we are heartbroken, we are comforted by the fact that her legacy and her influence will live on.”
Nicknamed the “girl with the golden ear,” the longtime music programmer at Windsor, Ont.'s CKLW-AM shaped an era of rock music, curating playlists from behind the scenes that reverberated across the Detroit border and beyond.
That included exposing fresh-faced musicians Gordon Lightfoot, the Guess Who and other emerging acts to both listeners and other radio station programmers who looked to her as a tastemaker.
“She changed my life completely,” recalled Burton Cummings in a 2016 interview.
It was Trombley's faith in the Guess Who's “These Eyes” that helped rocket them to stardom. All it took was putting the track into heavy rotation on “the Big 8,” a name the station earned for its powerhouse 50,000-watt signal at 800 on the AM dial, and a star could be made.
“I owe her lifelong thanks,” Cummings added.
“She believed so much in 'These Eyes' and Canadian music in general.”
Other artists owe a debt of gratitude to Trombley's good taste, too.
Over her tenure as music director at CKLW radio from 1967 to 1984, she shone a spotlight on Paul Anka's “You're Having My Baby” and Bachman Turner Overdrive's “Taking Care of Business.”
She also convinced Elton John's label that “Bennie and the Jets” was destined to be a huge song, if only they'd release it as a radio single.
Her influence gave many young Canadian acts a chance to break into the U.S. market, but it also drew the ire of some musicians who didn't always benefit from her influence.
Bob Seger was one of them, and frustrated with her authority over the airwaves, he wrote the tongue-in-cheek tribute song “Rosalie,” in which he proclaimed: “She's got the power, got the tower, Rosalie.”
Back in the 1970s, the influence of CKLW was bar none in the radio industry.
Aside from its transmitters that reached Detroit and the U.S. Midwest., the station was packed with a powerhouse of talent on the air, almost all of them strong male personalities, such as news anchors Byron MacGregor and Dick Smyth.
Trombley's role was less obvious to listeners, and she was one of the rare women in the radio industry at the time.
She started at CKLW as a part-time switchboard operator in the early 1960s and held the position until 1967, when her tenacity convinced management to promote her to record librarian - a position later retitled music director.
At the time, it was almost unheard of for a woman to work in the upper ranks of a radio station.
Trombley juggled her career while raising a family, all amid the era's dawning women's liberation movement. Her husband left her the same week she was promoted at the station, her son Tim Trombley once recalled.
Not long after her promotion, she began taking an active role, holding weekly meetings with record label reps who hoped to get their newest artists on the radio.
“She had to be strong and not be afraid to stand up to some very powerful music industry icons,” her son said in a 2016 interview.
“As a result of that, she had a lot of respect.”
Trombley not only exposed homegrown artists stateside, but she welcomed many songs from Black musicians onto Canadian radio, too.
Hits including James Brown's “The Payback” and Funkadelic's “I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody's Got A Thing” found spins on CKLW long before they were embraced in other markets.
Randy Bachman recalled Trombley's candour with musicians. If the song sounded like a dud, she wouldn't gloss it over.
Bachman said he began to trust her ear so much that he'd bring in acetate copies of possible Bachman Turner Overdrive singles before they were pressed, just to make sure she approved.
“She would say, 'It's gonna be your next single, but you've got to cut out the middle part,”' he recalled in a 2017 interview.
“She was like a free radio consultant. (It was) very rare because she asked for nothing. She loved Canadian bands and she thought we would stand up against the world's bands if given a chance.”
Trombley stayed with CKLW after its format change in 1984 and left the station in 1987 when she moved to Detroit's Hot AC station WLTI-FM. Later, she would join Toronto oldies station Key 590.
Her contributions to Canada's music scene were recognized at the 2016 Juno Awards where she was given the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award - the first time a woman received the honour.
Lightfoot remembered Trombley's ability to be a trendsetter.
In a 2016 interview with The Canadian Press, the singer said Trombley knew about his fledgling music career long before she embraced his single, “If You Could Read My Mind.”
A younger Lightfoot had walked into her office years earlier with his song, “Remember Me (I'm the One),” hoping she'd give it her seal of approval. She listened “very attentively” before saying she'd see if it might have a spot in their programming.
“She didn't add it,” he said.
“But she remembered - because she knew eventually there'd be another one. And there was, eight years later with 'If You Could Read My Mind.”'
Trombley knew if an artist had potential, Lightfoot said. If she believed in them, they would rarely fall off her radar:
“She didn't forget you - and she didn't forget me.”
Trombley is survived by her three children, Timothy (Renee), Todd, and Diane (David) and by her grandson, Robert.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2021.