From R&B musicians to hair-metal rockers, just about anyone who has played an instrument in more than a casual capacity in Metro Detroit over the past 50 years knows about Wonderland Music.
Even folks who didn’t play a musical instrument may remember Wonderland Music from the 1980s local television commercials that featured co-owner Clarence Wayne as “Crazy Clarence.”
In the early 1960s, Clarence and his brother, Larry Wayne, opened Wonderland Music in Dearborn. At the end of this month, they will retire and close the store for good.
“I’ve been here 54 years,” said Larry, adding that he “doesn’t feel old.” “There are so many stories.”
Some of those stories involve forming a longtime relationship with Stevie Wonder, who would visit the 10,000-square-foot store several times a week.
“We became friends because he came in, we became personal friends” said Clarence, adding that he and his brother were invited to Wonder’s 50th birthday party.
Via Wonderland Music, the Wayne brothers rented music equipment to Detroit-based artists, and those coming through town. They even supplied the P.A. system when presidents would visit, they said.
They worked with the Jackson 5 and delivered the group needed musical equipment to a show in the ’70s at Pine Knob, now DTE Energy Music Theatre, in Clarkston. Bob Seger was a regular customer. They supplied equipment to Led Zeppelin on one of their stateside tours. A wall in the Dearborn store — there was at one point five Wonderland Music stores in Metro Detroit — shows the Waynes with a variety of musicians, including Wonder, Bret Michaels, the Jackson 5 and others.
“We rented equipment throughout the whole (city). We had Joe Louis tied up, we had Cobo Hall tied up in rentals, you name it, Fisher Theatre — and they came to us — recording studios, United Artists came to us,” Clarence said.
It wasn’t big accounts and celebrities that made Wonderland Music a local favorite among musicians. It was regular people.
“We’ll miss the customers ... customers meant everything to us,” said Clarence, who in addition to the stores, also taught music at a local junior high school in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “We treat them right, and we care about them.”
Dearborn resident Ron McPherson remembers that kind of customer service when he would visit Wonderland Music as a high school guitarist living in Gibraltar.
“I was so broke when I was in high school that I’d have to drive there on fumes so I could buy one guitar string to replace one that broke during rehearsals,” recalls customer Ron McPherson of Dearborn, adding that Wonderland would indeed often sell him just one string. “It was the only place near downriver that we could go to that had what we needed or wanted back then.”
Detroit resident Bill Kozy, a musician and sound professional, remembers working at the Dearborn store in the 1980s was a “rite of passage” job.
“Everybody grew up watching commercials where Crazy Clarence chases turkeys around the store with a battle ax, and now you’re working for him, a job in the music business,” he said, adding that Clarence would often cut him slack for missing work to perform gigs.
Kozy said working at Wonderland as a stock boy could mean a different task every day: guitar tech for songwriter-guitarist Rick Derringer one day, delivering keyboards and Detroit Pistons tickets to Stevie Wonder the next. Kozy said he even appeared in one of the store’s Christmas commercials as one of the Santas.
“Wonderland was a focal point for musicians and us wannabes, young and old,” he said.
The Wayne brothers say Wonderland will be open at least through the end of the month. Everything in the store — drum sets, school band instruments, lesson books, guitars, amps, keyboards and more — is priced to move.
“We’ve got some great deals,” Clarence said.
Wonderland Music Co.
Closing at the end of October