By Rob van Alstyne
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By Emily Weiss
A wisecrack scrawled on a record sleeve turned four local boys into cult heroes. Legend has it that music-industry pioneer Vern Bank passed a note to his business partner, Amos Heilicher, that read, "The Bird is the worst I've ever heard. Must be a hit."
The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" was the song in question. The band, a surf-rock quartet based half the length of the U.S.A. away from ocean waves, and the song, with its nonsensical lyrics and weird pa-pa-ooh-mow breakdown, seemed unlikely candidates for pop stardom. Yet, with an appearance on American Bandstand, a number-four spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and more than a million copies sold, that's exactly what happened.
There was a time in the 1950s and '60s when Midwest bands reigned supreme, thanks to Heilicher-owned Soma Record's visionaries, expertise, and constant, rapid-fire releases. In this heyday of the 45 single, that initial burst of creativity counted more than layers of Pro-Tooled tracks and months or years whittled away in the studio. And Heilicher knew: The quicker the release, the quicker to jukeboxes and dancehalls and the eager hands of the nation's teenagers.
Tony Andreason, guitar player and singer for the Trashmen, recalls the making of "Surfin' Bird."
"The song, the first time we did it, was unrehearsed," he says. "We were just getting ready to play. [Steve Wahrer] started doing this crazy sound and he said, 'We don't know what we're going to do, so when I want to change keys, I'm just going to nod.' That's what he did. And the crowd just went absolutely crazy."
Within a week, after guitar player Dal Winslow borrowed $296 from his mother for recording expenses, they cut the single. The fame that followed shocked everyone, especially the band.
"I honestly couldn't believe it," says bass player Bob Reed. "I had never thought that song would make the top 40. It was crazy. I was thinking, 'You mean I have to go out and do this thing every day?'"
The group played 300 concerts in 1963. "And we did our own driving," Reed says. "We wore out a van in one year—99,000 miles on it."
The Trashmen joined a legion of Midwest bands, such as the Underbeats, the Gestures, and the Chancellors, who helped cement Soma's hit-making reputation.
Jim Donna's Soma story began in his parents' basement. In 1965, two years before Soma closed its doors, the Castaways member was tinkering on the keyboard when he came up with the tune for "Liar Liar." The song also went on to sell more than a million copies and gained further notoriety as part of the soundtracks to Good Morning, Vietnam and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
"We went over to Amos's house and played a tape of the song for him. And he said, 'Yeah, I like that. You can stop down at the office and sign a record contract,'" Donna remembers. "So the rest is history. Before we knew it, the band's on tour. We went from this little regional band playing ballrooms to being on the big national stage.
"There was nothing like Soma Records," Donna says. "They were a powerhouse. I would call Amos Heilicher the godfather of the Twin Cities recording industry."
Heilcher saw an untapped cyclone of talented local musicians, and he used his business savvy to carve a permanent spot for the Twin Cities on the national music radar. As Martin Keller, City Pages' first music editor, explains in his book Music Legends: A Rewind on the Minnesota Music Scene, Heilicher was also an industry success outside of Soma. In the 1940s, Heilicher opened a record-pressing plant with his brother Daniel. And during the Soma era, the brothers opened the national Musicland retail franchise that went on to purchase the Sam Goody chain.
"The label also helped create an environment to grow the business side of the music culture, with many musicians from the label and others moving on to become producers, nightclub owners of joints like First Avenue today, commercial producers, and related professions," he says.
Keller says Soma also paved the way for the success of local Twin/Tone Records, which released works by the Replacements, the Suburbs, Babes in Toyland, and others.
Though the label's influence lives on, in a way Soma's story begins and ends with Bobby Vee. In 1959, Soma released its first hit, "Suzie Baby," the first single by Bobby Vee and the Shadows. Vee soon became a teen idol and outgrew the label, but his relationship with Heilicher continued.
"I got to spend some time with Amos shortly before he died [in 2008]," Vee says. "I met him at his office on a Saturday morning. His walls were filled with his successful career—everywhere, solid gold. And nearly 50 years later, among his many awards, in the corner was a small dime store-like frame. And so it was: Suzie Baby/Soma Records."