Hall of Fame journalist Luther Keith uses blues music to keep telling stories  ⋆

Luther Keith is a former journalist, community leader and blues musician who believes that songwriting is similar to state Capitol news reporting. 

“It’s 100% connected. God gave me the gift of words and the ability to write. Lyrics are the thing that people connect to. There are a lot of musicians who are great but they can’t write songs. It’s about conveying a story with words and pictures, Keith told the Advance this month between a recent set at Bert’s Bistro Lounge, a popular Detroit bar and restaurant located in the Eastern Market area. “Blues about politics and all types of stuff. If you can tell a story, it gives the music more impact.”   

After attending Sampson and St. Agnes elementary schools, graduating from Cathedral High School in 1968, and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Detroit, Keith joined the Detroit News in 1972 as a sportswriter. 

Luther Keith | Arise Detroit photo

He is believed to be one of the first full-time African Americans to cover the state Capitol in Michigan for a leading media outlet. In 1979, he began covering state government budgets and finance during tough recessionary times, which were marked by fiscal crises at institutions like the former Chrysler Corp. (now Stellaris) and the city of Detroit.  

“I wrote all of these stories about the economy,” recalled Keith. “At one point, I had 12 front-page stories in 14 days.” 

As for his four years as a Capitol reporter, Keith added, “It made me fundamentally sound.” 

In 1982, Keith became assistant city editor at the Detroit News, the first African American to serve in that post. The following year, the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) released a survey reporting that 29 white-owned media outlets in Detroit had 1,082 employees and only 137 or 12.6% of them were Black. At the time, the city’s population was 63% African American and the six-county metro area was about 22% Black.

Vincent McCraw is the current Detroit NABJ president who moved to Detroit in 1999 from Washington, D.C. to work as an editor at the Detroit News alongside Keith, whom he described as a “trailblazer.”  

“I’ve soaked up a lot of his knowledge about Detroit,” McCraw added. 

Giving back to the community while playing the blues

Community leadership is in Keith’s DNA as the nephew of the late federal court judge Damon Keith and brother of Wayne County Probate Court Judge Terrance Keith. His father, Luther Sr., was also a community leader and a U.S. Postal Service employee who founded the United Committee on Negro History.

Judge Damon Keith | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

In 1985, Luther Keith led the effort to found the Journalism Institute for Minorities at Wayne State University, an institution designed to train journalists of color. He also is a former Detroit NABJ board member. Its parent organization was formed in 1975, in part, to advocate for African American representation in newsrooms. 

In 1990, the Detroit News named Keith business editor. He later managed the newspaper’s Sunday edition and became the youngest inductee to the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 1995. After more than 30 years of service, Keith retired from the Detroit News in 2005. 

The following year, he founded a community nonprofit organization called ARISE Detroit that assists block clubs and other neighborhood groups in securing public relations and technical assistance to support their efforts.

“The cavalry is not coming,” Keith told the Detroit Free Press in 2006. “This is not an initiative to seek someone to rescue us. This is an empowerment initiative to say: ‘We can do this.’” 

As for Keith’s foray into music, it began as his journalism career was on the rise. 

At age 31, he decided to pick up a guitar and learned to play it. He calls blues music a “release” to pressures of life. 

Jim Martin, a former Detroit News colleague and friend, remembers Keith’s early years of guitar playing. Both men were teammates on the paper’s softball team.

“Luther brought his guitar to the campfire,” Martin recalled during a post-game bonding effort. “His timing was perfect as people were tending their aches and pains and enjoying their brews and he just started to jam on his guitar and bring the blues to the beach campfire. … It was one of those nights you can never duplicate. Full of joy, laughter, satisfaction on so many levels.”

The team won the tournament championship the next day, according to Martin.  

At age 45, Keith first performed live, launching his career as a musician. He formed a band and spent the next few years working the local nightclub scene to hone his performance skills. 

In 1998, after performing Detroit’s Soup Kitchen Saloon, his drummer complimented his performance by saying, “Luther Keith, you’re a bad man!” The slogan stuck like glue and the following year Keith released his first recording called “Badman.”

Vincent McCraw is the current Detroit NABJ president who moved to Detroit in 1999 from Washington, D.C. to work as an editor at the Detroit News alongside Keith, whom he described as a “trailblazer.”  

I’ve soaked up a lot of his knowledge about Detroit.

– Vincent McCraw, Detroit NABJ president, on Luther Keith

Vickie Thomas, a Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame member who attended Wayne State University and later worked as a reporter for Southfield-based WWJ radio for 30 years, has known Keith since the 1980s.  

“Between Luther and Ruth Seymour [a career journalist and former Wayne State University Journalism Institute for Minorities director], they instilled in you that sense of reaching back and helping others,” said Thomas, who is now the communications director for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. 

Keith said that each chapter of his career  — news reporter and editor, nonprofit executive and blues musician — has a common thread. 

“It’s about building relationships with people,” said Keith. 

authored by Ken Coleman
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