A behind-the-scenes hitmaker and business-man who gave many musicians their start, he later became a pioneer in riverfront redevelopment.
He played the hip son to his dad's music-biz baron. While his father, Amos, made big deals and socialized with stars, Ira Heilicher was in the studio making such records as "Liar Liar" with the Castaways, a Twin Cities garage band.
Heilicher, a force in the Minnesota music scene since the 1960s as well as a low-key businessman who promoted the historic St. Anthony Main riverfront, died Tuesday of complications of pneumonia. He was 65.
"Ira was responsible for most of my career," said Grammy-nominated producer David Z, who started in the mid-1960s with the St. Louis Park band the Chancellors and went on to work with Prince and Jonny Lang. "Ira booked our band, recorded us, got our record on the radio, gave us career advice. He really believed in a scene that had no hope at the time."
Heilicher was that way as a businessman, too.
"He was one of the strongest and most in-depth business people I've ever come in contact with," said Twin Cities restaurateur John Rimarcik, one of Heilicher's many partners. "He was very generous and he was not self-determined in deals. He shared. He also was very hands-on. We are partners in the St. Anthony Main parking ramp and he looked after changing the lightbulbs, the distribution of cash and analyzing the future of the ramp. But what's in his blood are records and music."
Starting in 1933 with jukeboxes, the Heilicher family was heavily involved in record distribution and later retailing, including the mighty Musicland chain. In their heyday in the 1970s, the Heilichers handled about 20 percent of all records sold in the United States.
While still a student at Minneapolis North High School, Ira had a band-booking agency. His dad started a record label, Soma (Amos spelled backward), but being the boss' son didn't mean carte blanche for Ira. A committee of Soma staffers voted on which acts the label would release.
Ira got particularly excited about a band that invited him to a recording session even though he'd never seen it perform. He stayed in the studio with the Castaways until 4 a.m., offering advice on the recording and money to cover the session.
"I was standing at [Amos'] door at 6 [that morning], going 'You gotta listen to this,'" Ira recalled in a 1998 interview. "He didn't say 'Yes' right away, and he brought it [the tape] in to the group and they listened to it."
"Liar Liar" reached No. 12 on the Billboard singles chart in 1965. Soma also handled such hits as Dave Dudley's "Six Days on the Road" and the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird."
"Ira was always very content to be behind the scenes, managing the nuts and bolts," said Prince's first manager, Owen Husney, one of many Minnesota music geeks who got their start in the business because of Ira.
After working at the Heilicher Brothers distribution company for many years, Ira founded and ran the Great American Music chain of 17 superstores in the 1970s and '80s, and also became involved with the Circus Pizza chain, a logical extension of the family's history with arcade games.
After selling their record-distribution business, the Heilichers transitioned into real estate, owning everything from nursing homes to bars and shopping centers, including part of St. Anthony Main. Some of Ira's most recent properties included Pracna on Main, Tuggs and Vic's on the Minneapolis riverfront.
"He was a staunch early believer in the development of the riverfront," said business partner Scott Brinda. "He kept his office there."
Heilicher co-founded the Stone Arch Bridge Festival in 1994 ("From Day 2, he took over," Rimarcik said) and Minneapolis Oktoberfest a decade ago. The latter festival, set for Sept. 9-11, has been canceled this year because of his death. Both provided a showcase for Minnesota musicians -- a cause that remained close to his heart.
Heilicher is survived by his wife, Jackie, and two daughters, two grandchildren and a sister. (His father died in 2008 at age 90.) Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream