Words by Lily Waronker
Photos by Regina Daniels
George’s Music Room was beyond a place that sold records, it was a place for booming music to make history. It was clear from the start that George Daniels’s appreciation for the artists’ self-preservation would drive him to a place that back then, only white people were allowed to discover.
Considered a pioneer in Black music specifically, Daniels changed music in all tones and capacities. He advocated talent and listened to the customer in a way that was almost intimidating to the music industry. He understood that to survive as a record store retailer, he had to treat his merchandise as if each record was a living soul. To sell the record was to sell the artist.
He sold music that no other store acknowledged, making his shop a whirlpool of obscure tunes and personalities—and where famous Chicago voices such as R. Kelly, Da Brat, Common, and Kanye West hold him responsible for shaping their careers. Unlike the record executive who limits their artists’ relationships to a nine-to-five, George took them in as his own, creating a room fit for a family.
Who are your main inspirations and when did you decide you wanted to be in music?
It really wasn’t a decision; it was exposure. Of course growing up as a Black person in New York City, the Mecca of music at that time, you always hear music at home. What happened to me was, after I graduated high school, I met this young lady who had one more year of high school left and she had a part-time job at Chess Records. You know the movie Cadillac Records was about Chess? Well we started dating, and one thing led to another and I wound up getting a job down there.
Fast forward and I was cleaning up the studio at Chess Records. Muddy Waters; Etta James; Billy Stewart; Reggie Lewis; actually Earth, Wind & Fire started at Chess Records because Maurice White was Ramsey Lewis’ drummer. Earth, Wind & Fire was created by Maurice White, and the producer was Charles Stephanie and he never got credit for it—you’re getting it now, Charles! So that young lady became my first wife, Minnie Riperton.
Marc is my son, Maya Rudolph’s brother. So one day I left and met up with a guy who worked for a record distributor on Michigan Avenue, and I got a job at One Stop Records Incorporated; that’s where I learned to sell records. It was cheaper because we didn’t have the same marketing dollars as Sam Goody’s and all these other White stores. So I challenged the industry, became a so-called renegade. When I put a business plan together for what George’s Music Room was going to do, they tripped out.
So this was the beginning of George’s Music Room?
It was 1969. I had worked at a wholesale place for a while, and I learned how to handle orders over the phone and deliver them to record stores—they were neighborhood record stores. When I transitioned into my own store, without any money, I talked the landlord into giving me 90 days credit on the rent. I went to the One Stop on 75th and College Grove, Gardener’s One Stop. I brought six albums and started on December 12, 1969. I was my only employee for the first three years. George’s Music Room was the name, and I chose it because it distinguished me from the others.
Aside from selling music, why was George’s Music Room so impactful to the neighborhood?
I was a Black retailer and Black retailers weren’t invited to be a part of the industry. But we played our roles, sold a ton of music, and the numbers went where they went.
I really wanted to understand the business. The Black executives took me to the convention, NARM, National Association for Recoding Merchandises, and all the White record stores were there. I learned how to be a retail entertainer in order to be a part of the game. I learned the priorities, created relationships, and used them in the future to know how to relate to younger artists away from home. That’s how I networked in the industry.
How did you help local musicians with your store?
I’d play them in my store! Well I’d introduce them…it’s like Do or Die. The first guys I introduced them to was Jimmy Jam, and they were dealing with Mint Condition. My store was different from any on Earth, and still in the hood. I introduced them to Crucial Conflict, all of them; my place was the place because of the conventions. I would open the shop at six a.m.! So as soon as you get off the grave-shift at work, you know “George is open.”
I only sold two things: emotions and memories. If you like it and it’s new, it’s emotions. If it’s old, it’s memories. What made us successful was the fact that my employees were in-tune with the street. Say you went to Oakland, came back to George’s with the cassette and said “George play this” and everybody would run in. There would be a phone number on it, and one time I got something by Too $hort. I responded to the audience, and that’s how I got my ear. The records come in because my customers bring them. I was that guy that responded to customers, I put everyone’s shit in my store.
Marketing! It was my way of getting recognition without a huge budget. What kind of money did I have? I went to NY and the record stores had these big sheets where I would pick the top 12 interests and bring it back to Chicago. Frankie Crocker was one of the biggest disc jockeys in NY, and he would put a new record on without telling his listeners who or what it was to block competition from other DJs.
White kids were coming into my store because they couldn’t find it in the White neighborhoods. You had all these stores with record departments, with Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, but the overall section didn’t have Marvin Gaye and others; but it was in our store.
This is what changed the game. We were the only place you could get the music. The reason why SoundScan was created was to figure out what the mom and pop stores were selling. I started being nationally recognized because I wasn’t for the bullshit. They told me to do my reports, and I said “Yeah,” and they said it would tell me what to sell but I already knew. They only wanted the information to give to chains.
So what were some of the artists you featured in your store whose careers you feel you helped out?
Well there was Carl Thomas, R. Kelly, Twista, Common, J. Prince, Geto Boys, to MC Choice and Da Brat.
What separates a true artist from the rest?
You know, identity is your sound. I know and can hear the difference between Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, Jonny Taylor, Albert King, and B.B. King. I listen today and I’m like, “The hell is that shit?” Get some diversity, you know? The parents aren’t playing it. You have the soundtrack to your life that’s so narrow, and you’re not open. Look to your wardrobe, a black suit only for funerals. I get different looks for the club, and you see everybody look alike with red bottoms, like a 99-foot tall midget. The dudes look alike too, going in with a white t-shirt and the pants down.