By David Roth | Producer for The Lowertown Line
The Heilicher Brothers story is an epic Minnesota saga, but it’s too large to tell completely in a 2 ½ minute video. So, we left a lot out, but tried to briefly describe what the Twin Cities music business was like in the past.
Amos and Danny Heilicher started SOMA Records (Amos spelled backwards), and gained national fame when they signed The Trashmen, a local surf rock band. The story of how they reacted to “Surfin’ Bird” has some urban legend variations, but when we visited Jamie Heilicher, he showed us the original 45 that Vern Bank sent to Amos Heilicher with the inscription, “The Bird is the worst I’ve ever heard. Must be a hit. Call me if you’re interested. Vern.”
We met with Jamie Heilicher, Danny’s son, and we were introduced to Norman Pink, a cousin of the brothers. Norman told us the whole story: The Heilichers grew up on the North side of Minneapolis. Their father was a learned Torah scholar in the Jewish community. The brothers were entrepreneurs from an early age, selling scorecards at Gopher football games in the 1930’s.
Things really started for the brothers once an uncle lent them some money to buy some jukeboxes. The brothers parlayed their jukebox business into distribution deals with major record labels, and they were off. The Heilicher business model was two-fold. Coin operated machines, and records.
They licensed Jukeboxes, cigarette machines, and pinball games to local bars, and built a huge coin op business. They also bought a share in Vern Banks recording studio (26th and Nicollet), opened a record pressing plant on Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, and started Soma Records. Amos’ son Ira was a rock n’ roll fan, and most of the bands Soma signed were at the behest of Ira.
By the 1980’s, the Heilichers had bought the Musicland record store chain, opened a series of video arcades, and started Showbiz Pizza. Modeled after Chuck E Cheese, the restaurant had its own animatronic band, The Rock a Fire Explosion.
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