Amos Heilicher, 90, pop music hitmaker

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2011 - 6:36 PM

The godfather of the Minnesota record business helped launch local acts like the Trashmen into stardom.

Amos Heilicher

He was considered one of the most powerful people in the music industry, landing on an Esquire magazine list in 1970 with Mick Jagger, Paul Simon and Motown founder Berry Gordy. Amos Heilicher could take a local record such as the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird," the Castaways' "Liar, Liar" or Dave Dudley's "Six Days on the Road" and make it a national hit.

Heilicher, the godfather of the Minnesota record business, died Sunday of pneumonia at University of Minnesota Hospitals Fairview. He was 90.

"He was working on Wednesday, and that evening he went to the hospital," said his son, Ira Heilicher, a Minneapolis businessman. "His life was to make deals and work and be productive."

Heilicher was powerful because he was involved in so many facets of the music business: an indie record label (Soma, or Amos spelled backwards), distribution of major-label recordings to retail shops, "rackjobbing" (running record departments for dime stores and department stores) and retail (the Musicland and Discount Records chains). At their peak, Heilicher's companies accounted for about 10 percent of all recordings sold in the United States.

"He was larger outside of Minneapolis than he was in Minneapolis," said Owen Husney, a Los Angeles music executive and Prince's first manager. "He was much better known throughout the business. He and his brother [Danny Heilicher] were founding fathers and pioneers of record distribution."

It all started with Heilicher buying five jukeboxes when he was in high school. Mercury Records, which supplied discs for his jukeboxes, asked him to become a regional distributor and later he made deals with RCA, Columbia and other labels. In 1977, the Heilicher brothers sold their record-business interests.

"The whole Minneapolis music scene owes Amos a debt," said Nashville music producer David Rivkin, aka David Z, who had a Midwest hit ("Little Latin Lupe Lu") on Soma with the Chancellors in 1964 and later worked as a promotional rep for Heilicher. "He was a strict businessman. He talked to us every day. He was very encouraging about my involvement with music. He was modest. I had the highest respect for him."

After selling his interests in the music business, Heilicher became more active in real estate. He owned part of the St. Anthony Main retail complex and the now-defunct Circus Pizza. An active philanthropist, he served on the boards of the Minnesota Orchestra and Mount Sinai Hospital, and raised money for various nonprofits. Earlier this year, a school was renamed the Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School. His wife died in 2007, his brother in 2005.

In addition to Ira, Heilicher is survived by a daughter, Elissa, of Golden Valley, four grandchilden and five great-grandchildren. The funeral will be at 2 p.m. Thursday at Beth El Synagogue in Minneapolis.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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