Dan Heilicher

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Dan Heilicher put the Minnesota music business on the map, launching local acts like Bobby Vee, the Trashmen and the Castaways to national prominence via Soma Records, the Minneapolis label he owned and…
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Dan Heilicher put the Minnesota music business on the map, launching local acts like Bobby Vee, the Trashmen and the Castaways to national prominence via Soma Records, the Minneapolis label he owned and operated alongside older brother Amos. The siblings are no less notable for their pioneering sales and distribution efforts, culminating in the enormously successful Musicland retail chain. Born in Minneapolis in 1923, Heilicher entered the record industry in 1945 on returning from duty in World War II; Amos, five years older, was by this time a veteran of the business, working as a local jukebox service distributor as a teen before opening his own independent wholesale distribution firm. In 1947 the Heilichers landed deals with Mercury Records and Columbia Records, overseeing a retail distribution network that extended across the Dakotas, Nebraska and Michigan's Upper Peninsula; their business model emphasized "rackjobbing" -- i.e., running record departments for dime stores, department stores and other retailers, expanding sales of singles and LPs into myriad new environments. "The way the Heilicher brothers worked, Amos was the idea guy and Danny was the nuts and bolts guy who put it all together," family friend and former K-Tel International GM Owen Husney later told Billboard. "At some point, Amos probably said, 'We have to get on computers,' and Danny probably said, 'I'll get on it right away.' And then he probably went away and learned everything to know about how to use computer with distribution and probably was the first in the industry to buy punch cards for computers."

The Heilichers co-founded Soma Records in 1957 -- the name was "Amos" spelled backwards. While the label initially focused on local polka music, country and jazz artists, in 1959 Amos Heilicher signed Fargo, ND-born rocker Bobby Vee, who debuted with the Buddy Holly-inspired "Suzie Baby" -- when the single emerged as a regional smash, Liberty Records licensed the master for national distribution and acquired the singer's contract by year's end. With the money earned from the Liberty deal, Soma licensed from Wisconsin label Cuca rockabilly duo the Fendermen's rendition of the Jimmie Rodgers classic "Mule Skinner Blues" -- the record proved an unexpected blockbuster, selling over a million copies and reaching number three on the Billboard pop chart. From there the Heilichers rattled off a series of hits that established Soma among the premier American independent labels of the '60s -- national hits like the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird," the Castaways' "Liar Liar" and the Gestures' "Run, Run, Run" remain quintessential examples of the surf and garage rock ethos that dominated radio in the first half of the decade. With their recording and distribution units now firing on all cylinders, in 1964 the Heilichers acquired Musicland, at the time a 15-store retail chain founded eight years earlier by Minneapolis entrepreneurs Terry Evenson and Grover Sayre. In 1968, with the business expanded to 48 locations across the Midwest, the siblings merged Musicland with Pickwick International, the American record label and distributor notorious for its soundalike releases and bargain-bin reissues. The merger also heralded the demise of Soma, which was consolidated under the Pickwick Records aegis.

At their peak, the stores under the Heilichers' supervision accounted for about 10-percent of all recordings sold in the U.S. But in 1976 Amos Heilicher had a falling out with other members of the Pickwick board, and he and Dan both sold their stakes in the company; Musicland boasted 230 stores across the country when American Can acquired Pickwick a year later for $102 million, and throughout the quarter century to follow, the chain remained a fixture of the American retail landscape, eventually spinning off the Suncoast Motion Picture Company and Media Play brands before Best Buy Co. purchased its assets in 2000 for $865 million. By then the Heilichers had long since left the music industry for good, channeling their energy and capital into real estate, including ownership stakes in the St. Anthony Main retail complex and the now-defunct Circus Pizza chain. They also invested heavily in equipment leasing as well as the coin-operated machine business. Dan Heilicher died in Minneapolis on May 23, 2005 at the age of 82; Amos passed away on October 12, 2008 at the age of 90.