Robert O’Connor revisits the Minneapolis label, home to 60s psych-trash novelty hits ‘Surfin’ Bird’ and ‘Liar, Liar’
“Everybody’s heard about the bird,” the song begins. Peter from Family Guy heard the song and it became his new favorite thing in the world. He annoys everyone by singing and dancing along with the song until Stewie and Brian steal the record and smash it Office Space-style. The song was in Pink Flamingos and Full Metal Jacket. There was even an attempt to make it the number one Christmas single last year in the UK.
That song is, of course, ‘Surfin’ Bird‘ by The Trashmen. But who were The Trashmen and who recorded that acid-flashback of a song?
The band was formed in, of all places, Minneapolis. And a local label, Soma Records, recorded and distributed the song. It was not the first nor the last hit that Soma would produce in its ten years of existence.
It began at the Garrick Theatre, which used to sit at 2541 Nicollett Avenue. In 1955, Bruce Sweidin was the operator of the Schmitt Music company’s recording facility. That year, he bought their equipment and moved it into the theatre, converting the abandoned movie palace into a recording studio.
In 1957, Sweidin went to work for RCA and sold the studio to Vernon C. Bank and brothers Amos and Daniel Heilicher, who sold jukeboxes wholesale. Sweidin would later win Grammies for being the recording engineer on all of the Michael Jackson albums produced by Quincy Jones.
Bank renamed the studio after his wife and it became Kay Bank Studios. That same year, The Heilicher’s started their own record label, Soma Records, with the name coming from Amos spelled backwards. Kay Bank offered a deal to local bands: for $495, they would get three hours in the studio, a thousand copies of their single with 50 promo copies sent to radio DJs around the Midwest.
On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash outside of Mason City, Iowa. They were supposed to play a gig at the Armory in Moorhead, Minnesota that evening. The local radio station sent out an urgent call for a replacement band, and a 16-year-old named Bobby Vee showed up with his band of five buddies from high school. In the liner notes of his 1963 album A Tribute to Buddy Holly, Vee said he had been a fan of Holly and had organized the band the week before. They had been rehearsing with Holly’s music in mind. When they showed up at the Armory, they didn’t even have a name, so they made up The Shadows on the spot.
On June 1, the group went to Minneapolis and recorded a song Bobby had written in tribute to Buddy Holly, ’Suzie Baby’. It was popular on the local stations and the major labels wanted to sign the band. Vee eventually signed with Liberty Records. Some time during the month (the dates are unknown) Bobby Zimmerman played piano with the band, calling himself Elston Gunn. He was let go because he could only play in one key and Bobby Vee thought he had no future as a musician. He later changed his name to Bob Dylan.
In a 1998 article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Amos Heilicher said he kicked Bobby Zimmerman out of his house for banging on the piano in his home. He also said that his daughter Elissa had met Bobby at Camp Herzl, a Jewish camp in Wisconsin the two attended as kids.
At first, Soma put out a lot of country and rockabilly songs, since that’s what most of the bands that came to them played. One group that gave them a big early success were The Fendermen, made up of two guys, Jim Sundquist and Phil Humphrey, who met as students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their hit ’Mule Skinner Blues’ was recorded at Cuca Records in Sauk City, Wisconsin, just outside of Madison. It was picked up by Soma and distributed nationally, hitting #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. All of the group’s future songs would be recorded at Kay Bank and released by Soma.
In 1962, a group called The Messengers from Winona, Minnesota released a single through Soma, ‘My Baby’. Soon afterward, their lead guitarist went off to college and their guitarist, Greg Jeresek moved the band to Milwaukee. They recorded a cover of Wilson Pickett’s ’In the Midnight Hour’ in their living room studio and managed to get it released nationally in 1965. That same year they became the first white group signed to Motown Records.
Hitting its stride
Soma hit its stride in 1963 with the release of ‘Surfin’ Bird’. The Trashmen had recorded it at the suggestion of Bill Diehl, a DJ on WDGY and a music writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He was at the gig where they first played the song. The band before them, The Sorenson Brothers played ’The Bird is the Word’, which had recently been recorded by The Rivingtons. The Trashmen hadn’t heard that song and decided to play it along with ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow’, also a Rivingtons hit. Drummer Steve Wahrer improvised the middle section.
When he heard the recording, Vern Bank sent a note to Amos Heilicher saying “‘The Bird’ is the worst I’ve ever heard. Must be a hit. Call me if you’re interested. Vern”.
The song was a hit locally and was nationally distributed by Liberty Records. The song eventually reached #4 on the Hot 100 chart. However, lawyers for the Rivingtons added the band’s name to the credits due to it being their two songs.
The Trashmen followed up with ’Bird Dance Beat’ in February 1964.
That same year, Dave Dudley recorded his biggest hit ‘Six Days on the Road’ at Kay Bank. The song was distributed by Soma until Mercury Records bought the rights.
In October 1964, a group out of Mankato named The Gestures had a Soma-released hit with ‘Run, Run, Run’ which hit #44 on the Hot 100 chart. It’s B-side was ‘It Seems to Me’. The band sounds like The Zombies in the latter, who had a hit in August of that year with ‘She’s Not There’. Soma’s last single for the band was ‘Don’t Mess Around’ in 1965 The song was the B-side to ‘I’m Not Mad’, a Beatles-esque single with two lead vocals and a harmonica. But the official release put ‘Don’t Mess Around’ on the front with ‘Candlelight’ on the back. The band broke up in 1965 and their lead singer, Gus Dewey, eventually became the lead singer for City Mouse. He died in 2003 at the age of 57.
In December 1964, Soma had another local hit with The Chancellors’ cover of one of The Righteous Brothers’ first songs, ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’. The Chancellors were from the western suburb of St. Louis Park. ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’ was a B-side that did better than the a-side, ‘Yo Yo’, written by rhythm guitarist Mike Judge. They would later put out ‘Surf Beat’ and ‘I’m a Man’.
The band was the first artist signed to the talent agency Path Musical Productions, founded by Ira Heilicher (son of Amos) and Dick Shapiro. They would eventually sign bands like The Castaways and The Gestures, who would have singles released by Soma. When the agency dissolved, Shapiro and Bill Diehl (and later Owen Husney) formed the Central Booking Agency, which promoted many of the same bands.
The Chancellor’s lead guitarist was David Rivkin. Also known as David Z., Rivkin helped record the set of demos with Prince in 1976 that got him a deal with Warner Brothers. He was also a session guitarist with Lipps Inc at the peak of their success, though he didn’t play the guitar riff on their #1 single ‘Funkytown’.
In 1965, Soma’s next big hit came with ‘Liar, Liar’ by The Castaways. That one went hit #12 on the Hot 100 chart and the band played it in ‘It’s a Bikini World’, one of the last beach party movies made by American International Pictures. The single’s B-side is ‘Sam’.
Their next single came out that fall, ‘Goodbye Babe’ and ‘A Man’s Gotta Be a Man’. The latter was written by guitarist Robert Folschow, who sang the falsetto vocals on ‘Liar, Liar’, which was written by keyboardist James Donna and drummer Dennis Craswell. Just as ‘Liar, Liar’ had a scream before the bridge, ‘Goodbye Babe’ has a gruff laugh at the beginning.
That same year, the band The Boys Next Door from Indianapolis recorded a single with Soma, ‘Why Be Proud’ / ‘Suddenly She was Gone’. The All Music Guide dismisses the band as derivative of The Beach Boys, saying “not every unearthed batch of sounds from the mid-1960s has to be worth hearing”.
Another Indiana band, Sir Winston and the Commons had a song with Soma that year ‘We’re Gonna Love’. The B-side was ‘Come Back Again’.
The High Spirits had a hit with ‘Tossin and Turnin’, the B-side to a cover of ‘(Turn on your) Love Light’. The record was #1 in Kansas City and Dallas in the fall of 1965. It’s lead guitarist was Owen Husney, a relative of the Heilicher family, who would later be Prince’s first manager. They recorded another single with them in early 1966, ‘I Believe’ / ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, the latter being a cover of the Jimmy Reed song. David Rivkin left The Chancellors in 1965 and sang back-up vocals on ‘Love Light’.
Most of the bands that went to Soma around this time were garage bands. One exception was the Duluth band The Titans, an instrumental surf rock group, who recorded two singles for Soma in 1963 (’Summer Place’) and early 1964 (’Reveille Rock’). Another were The Gamins, who had an instrumental single ‘Freeway’ in 1965.
At some point, The Guess Who, from Winnipeg, made recordings at Kay Bank Studios. One of the songs recorded there, ‘His Girl’ hit the singles charts in the UK.
Another song put out by Soma was ‘UFO’ by Dudley and the Doo Rytes, which has a similar sound to The Animals. The Del Counts were one of the last bands Soma recorded, with ‘Bird Dog’ (which quotes ‘Surfin’ Bird’) and ‘Let the Good Times Roll’.
In 1964, Amos and Dan Heilicher purchased the Musicland chain of record stores from founders Terry Evenson and Grover Sayre. In 1968 Musicland merged with Pickwick International, a label and distributor.
Soma records was merged into Pickwick Records, with Amos as the head of its retail and wholesale operations. At its peak, Pickwick accounted for 10% of all recordings sold in the US and half of all recordings put out by independent labels. A 1970 feature in Esquire called Amos Heilicher one of the music industry’s most powerful figures alongside the likes of Mick Jagger and Berry Gordy, the head of Motown.
In 1976, Amos sold his stake in the company. Musicland had 230 stores across the country when it was bought in 1977 by American Can for $102 million. It was sold again to Best Buy in 2000 for $865 million.
Amos and Dan left the music industry and threw their efforts in to the real estate business, helping to expand the St. Anthony Main shopping complex and the now-gone Circus Pizza chain.
Ira Heilicher eventually owned a chain of record stores, Great American Music/Wax Museum, which had 17 stores nationwide by the time in closed in 1986.
Kay Bank Studios passed through a couple of names after Soma ended, but Twin/Tone Records had their offices where it stood beginning in 1977. Among the artists they released were The Replacements, Babes in Toyland, Curtiss A and the Suburbs, among many others.
Two of Kay Bank’s former employees, Tom Jung and Herb Pilhofer founded Sound 80 in 1969. Its most famous recordings were Prince’s demos with David Rivkin in 1977 and in 1974 when Bob Dylan rerecorded half of Blood on the Tracks there with a group of local musicians – specifically the tracks ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. In 1978, using a primitive digital tape recorder from 3M, Sound 80 recorded some of the first commercially released digital recordings.
There were a lot of independent record companies making rock music in the 50s and 60s, but the only ones that live on are the ones that made notable hits. Sun Records’ name lives on as the place that gave the world Elvis Presley. Soma Records gave the world ‘Surfin’ Bird’.