While his kid-brother, Bill, was already a local legend from the Replacements’ and Soul Asylum’s road crews, Tom Sullivan gave up a successful career in insurance to make his mark on the Twin Cities music community. He and Bill co-helmed the famed Minneapolis rock club the 400 Bar in the late-1990s and 2000s.
Five years after his bar-owner days ended, Sullivan died suddenly Tuesday at home in Minneapolis. Cause of death was not certain. Bill said his brother “died peacefully in his sleep.” He was 62.
The eldest of eight siblings and a father of four, Sullivan was a captain of the basketball and track and field teams at Minneapolis Southwest High School and went on to play football for University of St. Thomas. Then, in 1976, “he got a bitching Camaro and headed west, which was the thing to do in those days,” Bill Sullivan fondly recalled.
Sullivan came back to Minneapolis in time to help his road-weary brother take over the 400 Bar on the corner of Cedar and Riverside avenues in 1996. There, the brothers helped foster the careers of future local music stars such as Mason Jennings, Haley Bonar and Caroline Smith and up-and-coming touring bands the White Stripes, Drive-by Truckers and Bright Eyes.
Tom was also keen on honoring the bar’s ties to Minneapolis’ West Bank music scene of the ’60s and ’70s, and he brought back Willie Murphy and Spider John Koerner for regular gigs.
“He was more the nuts-and-bolts guy behind the place,” said Conrad Sverkerson, stage manager at First Avenue and a 400 Bar employee before the Sullivans’ ownership. “A lot of the day-to-day work was Tom’s.”
Jennings credited Sullivan for giving him his start in the music business in 1998, when he signed up the newly transplanted singer/songwriter for a weekly gig before he even had a record out.
“He believed in me and my music when I really needed support,” said Jennings, who went on to sign a national recording deal a few years later.
Added Jennings, “He was the rare find in a club owner: a guy who didn’t drink, and a guy who also was a very involved, loving father to his four kids. He was a very open-minded and big-hearted guy, too, but nobody ever messed with him.”
“He said what he felt and felt what he said,” conceded his brother, “but if he was your friend, he was a give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back kind of friend.”
After a few declining years, the Sullivans sold the 400 Bar to a Somali school in December 2012 but pledged to reopen the rugged old club with other partners in — of all places — the glitzy fourth-floor of the Mall of America with an accompanying music museum. They were evicted for unpaid rent even before the bar could open.
Bill Sullivan said his brother was “semiretired” and happy to be out of the bar business, but he also did not regret spending those years at the club.
“After years of traveling around, working at the bar allowed him to stay at home and spend a lot of time with his kids while they were growing up,” Bill said. “And he turned out some great kids, too.”
The children, Francis, Walter, Harold and Joan, all graduated from Edina High School and range in age from 19 to 25.
They will host a memorial service at 11 a.m. Monday at Washburn-McReavy Edina Chapel, 5000 W. 50th St. A celebration is to follow starting at 5 p.m. on Monday at Ballentine Uptown VFW, 2916 Lyndale Av. S., Minneapolis, with live music by the Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League and others, memorial donations will be taken in lieu of a cover charge.