WWII veteran, Motown promoter honored with tribute transformed from his son's garage

More than 100 photos, plaques, posters and newspaper clippings adorn the walls of 71-year-old Tony Harris' garage, showcasing classic rock stars, Motown musicians, country singers, pop sensations and numerous other artists from the 1960s and 1970s.

But as much as he may love music, the decorated space isn't for Tony; it's for his 93-year-old father, Bob Harris, who met many of the idols featured on the walls throughout his life spent in the entertainment industry.

As a manager and promoter during Detroit's Motown heyday, Bob had both brief encounters and close relationships with local stars like Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Aretha Franklin, and other big names like The Rolling Stones, Sonny and Cher, James Brown and The Jackson 5. But throughout most of his time spent in the industry, the senior Harris always brought his son with him.

So, in his father's old age, Tony wanted to build a tribute for his father to come and revel in the highlights of his life's work.

Robert Harris, 93, prepares to do a trick shot while playing a game of pool with his son Tony Harris, 74, of Westland, in a garage at his son's home in Westland on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. Harris converted his garage into a man cave/tribute to honor his 93-year-old dad, a WWII vet, to give his father a way to look back on his memories and remind him of all that he accomplished as a metro Detroit entertainment/music promoter in the 1970s and 1980s. Tony has filled the walls with framed pictures, memorabilia and plaques with people he's had contact with such as Sonny and Cher, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, and dozens more.

"I would rather have a tribute to someone's life than a memorial. With a memorial, they're gone; I would rather have him bring his friends, people that he knows while he's still alive to enjoy his legacy and what he's done," Tony said.

The tribute, which doubles as a man cave for the duo to have some drinks, play poker and shoot pool on the weekends, serves as a tangible homage to Bob's career as well as the bond between father and son.

Bob Harris and his unstoppable ambition

Even as a young teen, Bob was filled with ambition, but his goals were initially less about music and more about military.

During World War II, Harris joined the Merchant Marines at just 14 years old. At 15, he joined the Naval Reserve, and at 16, he switched to the U.S. Army and was stationed out in postwar Japan.

He returned to the U.S. by the time he was 18, when he married Hope Saftus, which later became a joke when Harris actually met Bob Hope and said he and his wife had been promoting Hope's image for years, just by putting their first names together. The two settled down near Trumbull and Michigan Avenue, where they would go on to have two sons and four daughters.

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Harris didn't actually find his role as a promoter in the entertainment industry until 1964, when an act of wild gumption helped him to get his foot in the door.

One of his friends was trying to get a song on the radio so Harris confidently marched into the radio station in Detroit's Fisher Building, claiming to be a representative from Capitol Records. Security guards let him through, and while the DJ knew better, he admired Harris' courage and sent him to another radio station to have the song played.

His career blossomed from there, and soon he was booking artists at Cobo Hall, The Adams Theater, The Globe Theater, The Michigan Palace, Olympia, and The Michigan State Fair — even booking artists to sing the national anthem at Detroit Tigers games — and managing other newcomer groups, while also publishing a local rock 'n' roll newspaper called "Teen News."

"Teen News" is what led Bob to The Rolling Stones while the group was on its first world tour of the U.S. in 1964 for what is perhaps one of his favorite celebrity interactions. While completing a story for the magazine, he took a photo with The Stones, then 35 years later, when the group returned to Auburn Hills, he brought the photo to be autographed and Mick Jagger declared Bob the oldest Rolling Stones fan in America.

Robert Harris, 93, is seen in a photo with The Rolling Stones from the 1960s during their first U.S. Tour at Cobo Hall in Detroit while he was a publisher of the paper Teen News, that hangs on the wall of his son's garage in Westland on Tuesday, June 12, 2024. Tony Harris converted his garage into a man cave/tribute to honor his 93-year-old dad, a WWII vet, to give his father a way to look back on his memories and remind him of all that he accomplished as a metro Detroit entertainment/music promoter in the 1970s and 1980s. Tony has filled the walls with framed pictures, memorabilia and plaques commemorating his father with such stars as Sonny and Cher, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, and dozens more.

While he has been out of the business for decades, Bob says it's still an ambition of his to try promoting another talent — that is, after attempting to break a skydiving world record.

He went skydiving for the first time only several years ago and is planning to jump out of a plane again in just a few weeks for his birthday on July 7. When he went skydiving before, his family was inspired to parachute-up by Bob's enthusiasm and energy, so now he's on a mission to break a Guinness world record by getting all five generations of his family to skydive at the same time.

Even now, at almost 94 years old, Bob won't let anything stop him.

Introducing Tony to the industry

Out of Bob's six children, Tony was the only one fascinated with his father's life of entertainment, and so Bob began to bring him concerts and other events to meet the celebrities as they passed through Detroit.

"I would say, at least 80% of the people he met, I met with my dad," Tony said.

A pencil drawing of Robert Harris, 93, and all of the musical performers and celebrities he came into contact with as a metro Detroit entertainment/music promoter in the 1970s and 1980s hangs on a wall with other photos of himself and celebrities in the garage of his son's home in Westland on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. Tony Harris converted his garage into a man cave/tribute to honor his 93-year-old dad, a WWII vet, and filled the walls with framed pictures, memorabilia and plaques commemorating his father with such stars as Sonny and Cher, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, and dozens more.

But despite his glamorous career, Tony says his dad still performed the role of father excellently, not only to the Harris kids but also to kids on the baseball team that he helped to coach.

"All the inner-city kids where we grew up, they all still call him 'Pops.' ... He was a father figure to a ton of kids throughout the years, on top of all this," Tony said. "He's just amazing."

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Since leaving the entertainment business, Bob wrote a book with his attorney, John Douglas Peters, titled, "Images of America Motor City Rock and Roll, the 1960s and 1970s," while Tony became more involved with the business than ever before.

Photos of Robert Harris, 93, and some of the musical performers and celebrities he came into contact with as a metro Detroit entertainment/music promoter in the 1970s and 1980s hang on a wall in the garage of his son's home in Westland on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. Tony Harris converted his garage into a man cave/tribute to honor his 93-year-old dad, a WWII vet, and filled the walls with framed pictures, memorabilia and plaques commemorating his father with such stars as Sonny and Cher, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, and dozens more.

Back in the day, Tony was invited to join Bobby Vinton on his world tour after Vinton heard him sing, but despite his father's prodding encouragement, he declined the offer.

It wasn't until 2003 when Tony was approached by the Eddie King blues band and encouraged to pick up a harmonica. A little later, he formed a two-man band with a homeless man he met in Detroit called the Travelin' Blues. While his bandmate has since passed away, Tony still performs.

"It was fun because we'd do shows in the bars, and then I end up playing in a band. It's crazy how it all just turned around and now I'm in the entertainment business," he said.

Comically, when Tony wanted to meet B.B. King about a decade ago, he sneaked his way in using the same witty tactic that his dad used to kick off his career about 50 years prior: he claimed that the package he held, which secretly contained a T-shirt and CD for Travelin' Blues, needed to be hand-delivered to the blues artist, and security let him straight on through.

The creation of the tribute garage

Once Tony found that the garage of the new home — which was remodeled and gifted to him by his own three children — was heated, he wanted to turn it into a man cave but wanted some way to set it apart. Eventually, he landed on the idea of a tribute to his father, using the decades-worth of memorabilia from Bob's career, still saying, "What would be better to put on these walls?"

He got to work on the garage, spending several hours a week on top of his full-time job to reconstruct the garage, install and arrange other man cave necessities, as well as collecting photos and autographed posters to piece the tribute together one memory at a time.

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After about a year's worth of work, Tony surprised his father with the garage for Father's Day last year.

"He called and said, 'I got something for you for Father's Day.' OK, I thought a cigar or a card with $50, but I get over here and here we are: the jungle of entertainment," Bob said. "There is nobody in the state of Michigan and probably very few in the United States that have a garage like this. That I can say for sure."

Robert Harris, 93, poses for a photo after talking about some of the stars he encountered while working as a metro Detroit entertainment/music promoter in the 1970s and 1980s that hang on a wall in his son's garage in Westland on Tuesday, June 12, 2024, while sitting with his son Tony Harris. Tony Harris converted his garage into a man cave/tribute to honor his 93-year-old dad, a WWII vet, to give his father a way to look back on his memories and remind him of all that he accomplished as a metro Detroit entertainment/music promoter in the 1970s and 1980s. Tony has filled the walls with framed pictures, memorabilia and plaques commemorating his father with such stars as Sonny and Cher, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, and dozens more.

The two worked together over the next several months to tweak the garage a bit and add more memories, but it now stands completed.

"I consider myself one of the most luckiest people in the whole world to have done all of this, meet all these people over the years, and then have it turned into this garage," Bob continued, looking around at the dozens of famous faces smiling back at him from the walls. "I'm proud of myself, I'm proud of these people and I'm really proud of my family."

A photo of Robert Harris, 93, during a recent skydiving adventure hangs on a wall in the garage of his son's home in Westland on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. Tony Harris converted his garage into a man cave/tribute to honor his 93-year-old dad, a WWII vet, and filled the walls with framed pictures, memorabilia and plaques commemorating his father with such stars as Sonny and Cher, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, and dozens more.

They use the garage and an adjacent patio area for family gatherings now, where Bob's children, 19 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren can all come together to admire the hundreds of items and thousands of stories that Bob has to tell of his time in the industry.

"I would say (my dad) was an inspiration on every part of my life. I've learned from him how to get my foot in the door ... (while) still caring about other people," Tony said.

“This was just actually an act of love. I absolutely love my dad. I'm proud of what he's done throughout his life," he continued. "I think it's went in from me to my kids to my grandkids because they've been a part of all of this. We're all in the same mindset because of him: There's hardly anything you can't do, challenge yourself and go for it."

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Westland man, 71, transformed his garage into a tribute for his dad

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