For the generation of Buffalo musicians that includes me, working for Lenny Silver's Record Theatre was a rite of passage.
If you were a struggling independent musician in the '90s, odds are you spent a good bit of the paycheck you earned at RT on CDs before you even made it out the door on payday.
When you enter one of the two remaining Record Theatre stores today, you'll see a whole new generation of musicians and music scenesters doing much the same thing. But now, those employees are gobbling up boutique vinyl and used records, reflecting the 12-inch wax resurgence.
Times change, trends come and go, but through it all, Silver's Record Theatre has remained largely the same - an iconic hub of the area's music scene, during good times and bad.
Silver's death over the weekend is leading music lovers of all kinds to reminisce about the role that Silver and Record Theatre played in their lives.
My own life might have been a very different one without Silver. Had it not been for him and his business, I might not have stayed in Buffalo for good, after moving here in 1990. I might not have met so many of the people who are now the most important humans in my life, my wife among them. I might not have become so immersed in the Buffalo music scene.
My Record Theatre tenure began almost immediately upon my arrival in Buffalo. I worked in the Transcontinent warehouse, located in the rear of the Record Theatre store at 1800 Main St., which at the time was the main hub of Silver's business – 37 Record Theatre locations from Buffalo to Philadelphia during the peak years, the Amherst Records label, local storefronts in Buffalo, Lancaster and Hamburg.
It might have seemed like a loser gig, from the outside. None of us were getting rich, the warehouse was cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer, the hours were long. But I loved it.
I worked with my friends, filling orders for all the stores, sometimes delivering them ourselves. We took our lunch and smoke breaks together. We listened to music at high volumes for entire shifts. We talked about music constantly.
We played each other recordings of our own bands. We hit the bars together after punching out for the day. We went out to see each other perform, offered support, and sometimes became enduring fans of each other's work. We felt like we were part of the music business, poor as we were.
At one point during my tenure, the Record Theatre warehouse staff was filled almost exclusively with musicians. Scott Talvitie from the Pinheads, Chris Nabb from Towpath and Sissybar, Tom Fenton from the Fibs and the Dreadbeats, drummer Scott Keller who seemingly played with everyone, my brother Dave Miers of Big Dogs and Undertow, my Tails band-mate Eric Starr – we all worked for Silver, even if he often couldn’t remember our names. (That would change for me, as I moved on to manage the Lancaster Record Theatre store in the later '90s, and became closer to "the boss.")
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Jeff Criden from Warner Bros. Records was always in the One-Stop, the retail outlet attached to the warehouse. You never knew who you might run into when you ventured over there. It seemed like everyone from the music scene passed through.
It's hard to remember all the musicians who passed through the Record Theatre ranks, so I asked my wife – who worked at the Main Street store at the same time I was working in the attached warehouse.
"You'd be better off trying to find the few musicians who didn’t work there," she said. "Everyone from the music scene ended up there, eventually."
Some even ended up with record contracts, through Silver's Amherst label. Gamalon, likely the greatest progressive rock/jazz fusion band to ever emerge from Buffalo, signed to Amherst after guitarist George Puleo joined the ranks in 1982. The band had formed from the ashes of Rodan, the prog outfit founded by drummer Ted Reinhardt and guitarist Bruce Brucato in the late 1960s and later including Rick McGirr, Victor Marwin and Bill Ludwig. Reinhardt, Brucato and Puleo were joined by bassist Greg Piontek for the 1987 eponymous Amherst Records release, which is now considered a classic of the form.
"Lenny was a great man who taught me a million things about the music business," Puleo told me the day after Silver's death. "He inspired us in Gamalon to want to sell records for him. In fact, he was an inspiration in many different ways. I'll miss him."
One of Amherst's biggest hits came via Spyro Gyra, the jazz fusion outfit started by former University at Buffalo student Jay Beckenstein. Silver signed the band, and would have great success licensing their music to major labels, including MCA.
Amherst released albums by the Chambers Brothers, the Stylistics, Glen Medeiros, Little Anthony & the Imperials and Solomon Burke, among others. But in Buffalo, what Amherst really represented was possibility in a business that offered little of it.
"He gives Buffalo a lot of musical credibility around the country, and a label like Amherst gives local musicians hope," Gamalon's Reinhardt told The News in 1992. "With a guy like Lenny around here, at least you know you have a chance to make it."
We felt the hint of that opportunity dangling before us back in the drafty warehouse, although none of us from that era ever ended up with one of Silver's golden tickets.
Silver was old-school. He preferred to do business face to face. He could be gruff and sometimes volatile. If you worked for him, you did not want to end up on his bad side. But he could also be funny and charming. And there was never any doubt that he truly cared about the music.
Brandon Delmont, drummer with Girlpope, Odiorne, Son of the Sun and A House Safe For Tigers, is the head buyer for Record Theatre. Delmont has worked closely with Silver during a time when the music business has gone through significant changes, as Record Theatre reduced staffing and storefronts, leaving only the flagship 1800 Main St. store and the University Plaza shop still operating.
"I remember one time, when he was faced with a very risky business deal that could've gone either way, him saying 'I'm a lucky man, a very lucky man.' And he went for it. He was willing to take risks."
Delmont also recalls the tougher times, when the money was not flowing as it once had, and Silver was struggling to hold onto the lifestyle he'd earned and become accustomed to.
"I remember him taking the heads of all the departments out to an expensive dinner at the Buffalo Chophouse, to discuss why business was so bad, and how we could save money," Delmont laughs. "That was so Lenny."
Delmont spoke for so many of us who knew and worked for Silver for any significant period of time, when he said "Even though our relationship was sometimes tumultuous, I loved him and respected him as a maverick in the music business."