The recent fire on Central Avenue brings to mind another fire that occurred just across the street on May 27, 2005. Like the March 22 fire, it was a three-alarm blaze that damaged or destroyed three businesses. One was B-Sharp Music. As the music store went up in smoke, it took with it a priceless collection of photos and autographs – and the hopes and dreams of many garage bands in the Twin Cities.
Began in Columbia Heights
B-Sharp was started in 1961 by a musician, Walter Tkach. He opened a music store at 4050 Central Avenue, where Don’s Barbershop now does business. Tkach wasn’t in business for very long; he died in 1967 and the family sold the business to James LoPesio.
LoPesio was an accordion player who played various gigs around the Twin Cities. He started working in the music store business after he returned from Army service. The Northeaster caught up with him on a rainy afternoon shortly after “stay at home” orders were issued by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.
“The store wasn’t doing very well,” he recalled. “The space was small. I needed to have more space if I was going to make the business work.”
In a Facebook post, David Wachter recalled, “[It was] a very small store. . . Selling accordions, concertinas, and a few guitars. Then he moved south, he said it would be warmer.”
On his daily drive to the store in the Heights, LoPesio passed through the intersection of Lowry and Central. There was a vacant building near the corner that he thought might work. He inquired about renting it. “The owner had just passed,” he said, “and his wife wanted to sell. I made an offer on the building, but she had three adjoining properties she didn’t want. I ended up buying them all.”
Jerry Lenz, drummer for the band Nickel Revolution, wrote in his blog, Nickel Revolution, “Every Twin Cities rock musician in the 1960’s was familiar with B-Sharp Music in northeast Minneapolis on Central Avenue and B-Sharp’s superstar proprietor, Jim Lopes. He was a promoter extraordinaire with immense sales ability, and a story teller with an extra measure of charm.”
Lopes, as he called himself, was a born deal-maker, and he quickly negotiated deals with Fender for guitars and amplifiers, Rogers for drums and Hohner for keyboards. He was a volume seller, and often sold for less than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Darrell E. Guessford was one of his customers. B-Sharp’s prices, he said on Facebook, were, “basically, 33% off SRP… and yeah, Fender was not happy about it.”
Ads from the Minneapolis Star Tribune indicate that Lopes also shopped around for deals he could pass along to his customers. An ad that appeared in the December 26, 1975 edition trumpeted, “Piano Dealer GONE OUT OF BUSINESS. Yes, and B-Sharp has purchased the entire inventory of 100 Fender Rhodes, Univox, Roland, R.M.I., & Wurlitzer Electric Pianos. . . Discounts to 41% OFF.”
Riding the wave of the British Invasion
Rock and roll was changing, getting more beat-heavy and relying more on guitars than the doo-wop melodies of the 1950s. Kids (mostly boys, but there were some girl groups, too) began forming bands and practicing in their parents’ garages. Disc jockeys spun records on the radio; garage bands played the latest hits such as “Hang On Sloopy” or the Del Counts’ “Let the Good Times Roll” at school dances. And then came the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five.
Lopes was waiting for the rock band wannabes at 2417 Central Avenue, with an array of glittery drum sets in the window and guitars hanging on the wall beneath a sign that read, “In God we trust. All others pay cash.” Customers were encouraged to haggle, a process that many teenagers thought was shady. Jim Silloway wrote on Facebook, “I always thought it was weird when I would go in there, knowing what I wanted and about what it cost. When I would ask what they wanted for it, they would always ask how much money I had in my pocket. I did buy some drums there once.”
Lopes’ fondness for fancy clothes and jewelry – he is described as wearing a sharkskin suit, a red velvet jacket or a silver lamé jacket in the store – cemented the idea in the kids’ heads that he was a member of the mob.
A gift for a Beatle
Lenz called Lopes “a promoter extraordinaire.” Indeed, he had a knack for it.
His ads frequently featured local bands. One ad for Rogers drums featured a collage of Twin Cities drummers from bands such as Nickel Revolution, Danny’s Reasons, Hot Half Dozen, the Mystics, the Underbeats and the Del Counts.
For some groups, such as Nickel Revolution, he went so far as to paint their van with the band’s logo, booking agency, and a small promo for B-Sharp Music. Asked about his sponsorship of bands, Lopes responded, “I wanted to make money. It helped to promote the bands with my ads.”
In 1967, B-Sharp published a music newsletter that profiled local and national musicians. Edited by the wife of the Underbeats’ Rod Eaton, it lasted a total of 26 issues.
It was a competitive time in the Twin Cities’ music scene. Radio stations WDGY and KDWB were locked in a head-to-head battle for teenagers’ ears. Lopes recalled doing a promotion with WDGY that involved a helicopter flyover of Metropolitan Stadium. The chopper pulled a sign that promoted WDGY and B-Sharp.
B-Sharp also went in with other music stores in the area to sponsor a Teen Fair during the Minnesota State Fair. “We had bands out there every day,” Lopes said. “They’d play until closing.”
The promotion that locked the little music store from Northeast Minneapolis into rock and roll history was another WDGY/B-Sharp collaboration. Ron Butwin, a B-Sharp employee, told The Beatles Bible, “When the Remo Four – another English group – were in town a few weeks back we showed them this guitar when they visited our store, and they flipped over it. The group knew the Beatles, and one of the fellows said that George Harrison would love to have a guitar like this. I decided that Randy and I should present it to him when he came to town, with our thanks to The Beatles for causing the guitar business to boom.”
Lopes got on the phone with guitar maker Rickenbacker and arranged for delivery of a Rickenbacker 360-12, an electric 12-string guitar in a Fireglo red sunburst finish. WDGY DJ Bill Diehl promoted the concert and gift on the air.
When the B-Sharp employees presented the guitar to Harrison, it provoked a little jealousy from fellow Beatle John Lennon. “Where’s mine, then?” he asked.
Below: Jim LoPesio, better known as Jim Lopes to his customers, found great deals and advertised them in the Star Tribune. (Lopes photo from Nickel Revolution blog.)