End of a Record Run
On Saturday, April 18, Brad Singer was in Tucson. The owner of the Zia Record Exchange chain had driven down for the annual Tucson music awards club crawl, universally known as the TAMMIES. Although he was a bit run-down from a persistent cold, Singer knew that he needed to be at the TAMMIES. He not only owned three successful stores in Tucson, but his record label, Epiphany Records, had just released a TAMMIES compilation CD to coincide with the awards show, and the event was a perfect chance to promote the album.
But on this night, Singer was in one of those morose moods that he would slip into from time to time. He felt fatigued and bored. He worried that his rampant generosity wasn't fully appreciated, that many people used him, that he didn't know who his real friends were. As the night went on and Singer downed more drinks, he told a friend that all he wanted in life was someone who truly loved him for him, not for the wealth he had to offer. His friend hugged him for several minutes, and they wished each other well. Somehow she sensed that she wasn't just saying good night, she was saying goodbye.
Less than three weeks later, on May 6, 400 people crammed into Sinai Mortuary to pay their final respects to Brad Singer. One person after another got up to relay amusing personal anecdotes or to describe how Brad had changed their lives by believing in them. One bearded, longhaired, extremely corpulent Zia employee named Tom brought people to tears, unabashedly describing himself as "a freak" and saying that Singer's unswerving faith made him feel "like a human being" for the first time.
It was an outpouring of emotion that probably would have shocked the often insecure Singer, but the funeral service offered a testament to what a wide swath the 45-year-old entrepreneur had cut through the Valley music scene. When most of us die, outside of our family and a close circle of friends, relatively few people are directly affected. But Singer was a point of intersection for an entire music community.
Seeing the Who's Who of local music that filled the mortuary, it was hard to think of any key Arizona music figures who had not crossed paths with Singer--either by working at one of the eight Zia locations in the state, or by recording for his beloved label, or by borrowing money from Singer for a recording project, or accepting funds from him to keep a radio show on the air, or possibly just by engaging him in a musical debate at Long Wong's. His death by a mysterious viral infection has left a palpable void in the community, and has thrown into question the future direction of the companies he created.
For now, everyone at the company is carrying on as though nothing has changed, and his mother, Lynn Singer, who has ultimate say in business matters, says that "business as usual" is her approach. While Zia and Impact, Singer's distribution company, are solid, stable entities, much speculation surrounds Epiphany, which was such a personal project for Singer (there were only three paid staffers at the label when Singer died) that it's hard to imagine it surviving. The recording future of the four bands signed to Epiphany--Beat Angels, the Piersons, Yoko Love, and the Revenants--is in limbo.
Singer's funeral was by far the biggest and most traumatic service for a local music figure since the 1993 death of ex-Gin Blossoms guitarist Doug Hopkins. As on that occasion, much of the crowd followed the mournful gathering by going off to Long Wong's--Singer's favorite bar--to tie one on and get rowdy in memory of their lost friend. The strangest thing about it was that Singer himself wasn't there to buy a round.
When Orson Welles died in 1985, film critics were at a loss to explain how the director of Citizen Kane could have achieved so much by the time he hit his mid-20s, yet spent the last four decades of his life spinning his wheels on one unfinished, ill-conceived project after another. The most common theory was that success had come too fast for Welles, that he'd run out of challenges too soon.
Some would say that, on a more modest scale, Brad Singer came to suffer from a touch of Welles Syndrome, simply because he reached his goals so early. By the time he was 30, Singer had established an ever-growing chain of thriving record stores, a company that now takes in $15 million a year. Faster than he could have predicted, Zia Enterprises became an Arizona institution, a business with sufficient momentum that it did not require constant attention from him.
As a result, in recent years, Singer sought out other challenges: opening his own distribution company, Impact Music, sinking his money into a biweekly pop-culture magazine called The Planet, and launching Epiphany Records, the record label that he dreamed would put Tempe on the map the way Sub Pop had done for Seattle. He even talked of one day buying his own radio station. For Singer, every ambition connected back to his lifelong love of music.
Singer was born on January 7, 1953, in Tucson, the first of five children to Lynn and Bud Singer. The family ran the local F&S construction business, and his father was working on a project in Tucson when Brad was born. Six weeks after his birth, his family moved back to Phoenix, and Singer never left the Valley again. Singer's brother Wayne recalls that Brad was a music devotee from an early age, expressing the dual dreams of either becoming a rock star or a famous standup comedian when he grew up. Though he always worked to keep his ears open to changing tastes in music, the favorites of his youth, the Beatles and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, remained particular sources of inspiration for the rest of his life.
After a spell working for other stores, like Odyssey and Circles Records & Tapes, Singer decided that he'd learned the ropes well enough to start his own record store. His mother Lynn recalls that "he knew what he was doing, and we knew he was going to do it right," adding that he had an innate gift for merchandising. In 1980, Singer opened his first Zia location at 19th Avenue and Indian School in Phoenix, relying on his own estimable record collection for inventory. He even leaned on those close to him for product, asking friends and relatives to give back albums he'd bought them as gifts. He always surprised people with his resourcefulness.
"Brad had never picked up a hammer in his life, but there he was, making the record bins himself out of peach crates," his mother says.
Singer wasn't the first person in town to open a used-record store. There were other shops like Odyssey, World Records or the more respectable Bill's, which drew an older, Sinatra-loving crowd. But Singer was different. He had drive and ambition, and he catered to people--like himself--who were true rock 'n' roll fans.
"There were several little shops around, but he was really the most consistent," recalls Johnny Dixon, a local music historian and friend of Singer's. "He was the only one to turn it into a chain, let's put it that way.
"He just had a vision to get bigger. And so many people worked at Zia. All the folks that were motivated by the music either ended up working there or as customers. He was just able to parlay his love of music into a good chain, and then Impact Music was just a good natural spin-off, so he could purchase his product even more cheaply by being a distributor, getting a better price than you could if you were selling six or seven stores individually."
As his mother says, "He wasn't the first, but he was the first to be successful."
In those early days, Singer worked 13 to 14 hours a day, always finding creative ways to expand his business. He kept the names of good customers on a Rolodex, along with information about each person's favorite bands. If someone came in with used records by Led Zeppelin, for instance, Singer would call a customer that he knew to be a Zeppelin fan, and inform him that he had some worthwhile product in stock. He aggressively worked at getting people into the store.
When people brought in used vinyl, he checked the records himself, and personally guaranteed their quality to buyers. He was also the first used-store owner in town with a resealing machine, which allowed him to apply shrink wrap to albums before he sold them. It was this kind of obsession with small details that set him apart.
In 1982, he opened his second store, at Fourth Street and Mill Avenue in Tempe. Perhaps because of its proximity to the university, or because it naturally attracted a work force of major players on the local club scene, the Tempe store quickly became the one most identified with Singer, a distinction that it maintained even after moving to Ash and University in 1987.
Along the way, Singer's love of music manifested itself in an after-hours garage band he helped form with a group of friends. The band, dubbed The Flying Moose Dicks From Outer Space, earned semilegendary status because it never actually played any gigs. Dixon and Singer both played drums in the band, which specialized in covers of chestnuts like Major Lance's "The Monkey Time," Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" and Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears."
A rehearsal tape made in late 1982 and January 1983 captures the ragtag ensemble in all its giddy sloppiness. In its own raw, unaffected way, it makes for fun listening, if only to hear band members shout at inappropriate places or jam on one chord for minutes at a time. With characteristic irreverence, the band also included selections with titles like "Moose Dicks Meet Jack Mehoff & Mr. French" and "Sexual Dicking" (a Marvin Gaye send-up). The credits on the cassette box list the following person as engineer for these lo-fi sessions: Push A. Button.
"It was just a group of record people," Dixon says of the Moose Dicks. "We'd just get together at someone's house, get a couple of six-packs of beer and play cover songs. He had his crappy little drum set and I had my little drum set and we'd get together after work, and it was a blast. Sometimes we'd even go and play at the store after hours."
Singer developed a reputation for demanding a lot from his employees, but most co-workers say he thrived on placing his trust in people and letting them do their jobs, with minimal interference. He was also fiercely loyal.
Kimber Lanning got a job working for Zia when she was only 15. Four years later, in 1987, when she decided to open her own record store in Mesa, Singer was completely supportive.
"Aside from my mother, he was the only other one who believed in me when I was trying to do this," says Lanning, the owner of Stinkweeds Record Exchange. "I remember we talked about it for a long time and we compared notes because his mother is also a business woman who sort of helped him get his start, as did mine. He looked at me for a long time, 'cause I talked about what my plans were and what my financial situation was, and he said, 'You can do it.' I had a really tiny place, sold my collection like he did, and worked my butt off, all day, every day like 80 hours a week.
"He extended me credit when I was starting, which a lot of people with wholesale places won't do, especially if you haven't been around for very long."
Singer was too industrious not to be somewhat competitive, but Lanning says any competition between them was "always friendly." When Lanning opened her first Stinkweeds location, Singer promised not to expand his business out to Mesa--though it was a natural place for growth--so that he wouldn't step on her toes. When she eventually decided to bring Stinkweeds into Tempe--Singer's home turf--to tap into the college crowd, Singer was the first person she told.
"I just said, 'I feel like I'm going back on my word, but I'm moving to Tempe.' And he goes, 'Oh, that's all right.' I'm sure already his mind was thinking, 'I can have Mesa now!' He just said, 'After all this time, I am so happy that you respect me enough to come and tell me to my face.'"
Around the time that Singer opened his Tempe store, he married Sandra Carrera. She assumed the task of handling the business's books, and the couple had three children together. But friends say they slowly grew apart, citing the pressures that come when a couple works together all day and then tries to share a family life at night.
After a lengthy separation, the couple divorced six years ago, with Singer maintaining joint custody of the children--Bryan, 14, and the twins Zachary and Caitlin, both 10. By all accounts an extraordinarily loving father, Singer built his schedule around the weekly Thursday-Saturday routine he shared with his kids. He purchased a van for his nanny, Sandra Quijas, so that she could have reliable transportation to pick up the children on Thursday afternoons and bring them to his home. And local musicians knew that, much as Singer loved to go check out bands in the clubs, Thursday and Friday nights were off limits. Those were the nights he spent with his kids.
"He was a great father, very understanding," Quijas says, her voice still suffused with shock and sadness. Quijas remembers Singer as a music nut who subscribed to every imaginable music magazine, who loved engaging people in discussions about local bands, and whose house was littered with thousands of CDs. He took special joy when his own record collection made an impression on his children. "His kids adored the Beatles as much as he claimed he did when he was younger, and he loved that," Quijas says.
Much as Singer delighted in the presence of his children, friends who'd known him for a long time say that he was never quite the same after his divorce. He was noticeably sadder, and often complained of loneliness. Particularly in the later years of his life, all his closest friendships tended to be with women, who he felt were more sensitive to the heartache he was feeling than other men.
"You'd think he'd have everything going for him," Tessitore says. "He was a smart person, he was an attractive person, he was an extremely successful person. Everything was great for him. But a lot of times, what Brad found--what anyone in that position finds--is a lot of people only want to hang out with him because of who he is, and that he'd buy them drinks."
Compounding his emotional distress was a physical condition that depleted his once-vaunted energy level. For a while, Singer thought he was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, but about four years ago doctors finally diagnosed his malady as lupus. The condition not only lowered his resistance to colds and other minor ailments, but wore him down enough to require that he take a nap every day from 3 to 6 p.m.
"He had daily fatigue from the lupus," Quijas says. "He said it was like when the flu has ahold of you and you don't really want to sit or lay down or stand, when you're just miserable. But it was on a daily basis."
Tessitore was surprised to learn recently that Singer's doctor rated the severity of his lupus as only between 2 and 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. "I thought it was much worse than it was because he complained about it a lot," she says with a touch of affectionate sarcasm.
"But lupus does kick your ass, there's no doubt about it," she adds. "Your body is constantly fighting itself. It's like being constantly sick to a degree. His joints always ached and he was tired, and he developed different skin rashes and stuff."
Though no one would describe him as consciously self-destructive, Singer didn't take care of himself as well as he should have. Even with his daily naps, he tended to push himself at work beyond what his body could handle. He was also never one to concern himself with exercise or diets. In addition, he continued drinking even after he was diagnosed with lupus. Although he made efforts to stop, with a stint in rehab and subsequent attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he eventually fell off the wagon. Friends attribute these tendencies to the occupational hazards of working in the music business, and needing to scout bands for his label.
"He recruited bands for Epiphany, that's what he did," Tessitore says. "Every night he would drink, there's no doubt about that. Some nights he would have two or three drinks, some nights he would have four or five drinks, and I'd say about once every two weeks he'd have seven or eight drinks and get fucked up. I think sometimes [people] saw Brad, and Brad was a 45-year-old man, and some of these 23-year-old guys were like, 'Man, I hope I'm not partying every night of the week when I'm 45.' But that's how Brad did all that. Honestly, that's how he got a lot of his employees. Plus, it was a social thing and he was single, and he was a lonely guy."
Because Singer was on various medications, including antidepressants, he found that alcohol affected him much more than it had in his younger days.
"What would happen is sometimes he would have three or four drinks and yet it would have the effect of having 10 drinks," Tessitore says. "I'll tell you, when me and Brad were in our heyday, before I was married, we drank more than Brad did now."
If his health and stamina had become somewhat precarious in the '90s, Singer reinvigorated himself with new projects. With the success of Zia and Impact assured, he turned his energies toward the creation of a record label that could nurture the local music scene that he loved. For years, Zia had released low-budget cassette compilations of local bands, but in 1994, Singer took the idea one step further by creating Epiphany Records.
Epiphany began with a splash, releasing Mike Condello Presents Wallace & Ladmo's Greatest Hits, a compilation of recordings from the long-running children's show Wallace & Ladmo. The show had been on the air locally for 36 years and had become a source of nostalgia for many local baby boomers. Dixon had come to Singer with the CD concept, and they painstakingly dug up old master tapes, in some cases relying on old 45s when the tapes couldn't be found. The album was conceived as a benefit CD for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tempe, and when it sold an impressive 5,000 copies, Singer was able to give the organizations $23,000. It was typical of the way Singer ran the label, letting his heart rule his head. As a result, the biggest seller in the label's catalogue netted him no income.
"Looking back on it now, he certainly could have used it to plow into Epiphany," Dixon says.
Later that year, Epiphany released a raw collection called Wheelie by an up-and-coming Tempe band known as the Refreshments. By the time Wheelie was released, the pop-rock quartet had inked a deal with Mercury Records, but Singer could not capitalize on its escalating profile because he was contractually prohibited from ordering a second pressing when the CD quickly sold out.
None of the subsequent Epiphany releases broke even, but for Singer the label was a labor of love, a chance to awaken national audiences to what Tempe had to offer. He not only financed the label out of his own pocket, but frequently--and with little fanfare--lent money to musicians for recordings, telling them that he'd get his money back when the release went on sale at Zia. Often, he never got his money back.
Singer's support for the scene was such that he hated to see a local band criticized in print, even if he didn't like the band himself. He also complained about the nonsupportive state of local radio, which rarely played local bands except on special Sunday-night time slots.
Former Arizona DJ and current Album Network vice president Jonathan L. Rosen had many discussions with Singer about contemporary radio. "I have no funny anecdotes. That's the reason I didn't get up and speak at the funeral," says Rosen, who describes himself and Singer as "the two orneriest Jews you'd ever meet in Arizona." Rosen adds, "We just used to have a lot of good conversations, 'cause he was so negative about radio, about the commercialization of radio."
When Singer recognized a truly creative, maverick voice on the airwaves, he didn't hesitate to lend his financial support. In the '80s, he sponsored Dixon's Sunday-night radio show on KSTM, called After Hours. More recently, he helped underwrite Those Lowdown Blues, Bob Corritore's Sunday blues show on KJZZ. In November of 1987, Rosen was forced out of KEYX by a format change, and he landed at KUPD two months later with a show called Virgin Vinyl. Singer knew that Rosen needed some extra money, so he offered him a job, creating a free music weekly called the Zia Zine. A decade later, this irreverent mix of news, gossip and trivia is a Zia institution.
"He truly was a generous individual," Rosen says. "He truly went out of his way to not only help people in a jam, he hired lots of people when they were down and out. That's how he built his empire, by surrounding himself with people that he believed in." Rosen adds that as an employer, "He was the best, the most honest and direct. You'll never find two people more brutally fucking honest than the two of us. We don't bullshit around. Even though he helped a lot of people, he never made you feel that you owed him."
Singer took his deepest plunge into the publishing business in late '94, when his friend and employee Laura Mackin told him about the dire financial straits faced by her magazine, The Planet.
"I told him we didn't need a Band-Aid, we needed an investor, someone who would commit to it financially for a year," Mackin recalls. Singer replied, "You haven't scared me off yet." She added that such a commitment would require a six-figure investment. Once again, Singer replied, "You haven't scared me off yet."
With Singer's silent backing, The Planet began publishing again in March 1995, drawing a loyal readership, but precious little advertising revenue. During the course of that year, Mackin, recognizing the fiscal futility of the operation, offered to pull the plug on the magazine, but Singer adamantly stood by his one-year commitment, consistently telling staffers, "You're doing great," in spite of the harsh realities they were facing.
"He wanted to stimulate a scene," says Laura Bond, who worked for Singer at both The Planet and Epiphany. "He wanted there to be as much culture here as there could be for younger people."
Singer never interfered in the editorial content of The Planet, nor did he seek any recognition for his efforts (realistically, he also knew that his Zia affiliation could hinder the magazine's distribution in competing record stores). He simply saw The Planet as another vehicle for enhancing the Tempe scene. When The Planet shut down in January 1996, it was a huge disappointment for him.
"Brad needed to create; he was a Capricorn," Tessitore says. "When The Planet failed, that really bummed him out."
All indications are that he'd also become frustrated by the inability of Epiphany to break through to a national level, and weary of the financial drain it was becoming. The man whose generosity was legendary in the Valley, who, as Mackin says, "could not say no to anybody" had recently declined to provide one of his bands, the Beat Angels, with $10 to pay the application fee for this summer's North by Northwest festival in Portland, Oregon. Beat Angels singer Brian Smith--who, like many local musicians, once worked at Zia--had once borrowed $800 from Singer, and he felt that Singer had come to hold it against the band.
"The other side is that when he made the deal, we weren't getting any offers, except for a couple of indies that were out of town. So I'm really thankful for what he did," Smith says.
"Epiphany was above and beyond everything else, so it wasn't like it was funded and all that stuff," Dixon says. "You went to Brad and said, 'We need an ad' or 'We need to put a promotion guy on it,' and Brad would write the check. So what's going to happen to it, I don't know. It was definitely his little baby. It was an expensive thing, and unfortunately, for the most part, one way, and that was out."
But such misgivings aside, Singer believed too strongly in the idea of the label to abandon it. "Epiphany wasn't really ever anything that would be considered commercially viable, but he just did it. He loved it," Bond says.
Singer often said that his two favorite local songwriters were Bruce Connole of the Revenants and Stephen Ashbrook of Satellite. By some strange ironic twist, the Revenants released their Epiphany debut, Artists and Whores, only two weeks before Singer's death, and Ashbrook released his debut solo CD Navigator--with financial support from Singer--two weeks after Singer's death.
"Musically, to me, the Revenants' one is the most solid one of all [the Epiphany releases]," Dixon says. "So it's disappointing that he finally musically had something that could make some money back for him."
By the time Singer went down to Tucson for the TAMMIES on April 18, he'd had a nagging cold for a couple of weeks. Doctors prescribed antibiotics, which didn't help, so Singer went back for another antibiotic, and his condition improved a bit. Tessitore says he "probably wore himself down" at the TAMMIES, but even after he came home and rested for several days, he didn't feel any better.
On Friday, April 24, he went to the doctor, who said his white-cell count was low, and decided to check him into St. Luke's Hospital. That night, from his hospital bed, in great discomfort, Singer ordered flowers to be delivered to his children's nanny, Sandra Quijas, with a note thanking her for all her help that day.
A battery of tests couldn't determine what was wrong with Singer, but by Tuesday, April 28, his condition had stabilized enough for doctors to release him from the hospital.
Singer left the hospital at 5:30 p.m., picked up his car at his doctor's office and stopped on his way home to get a gordita at Taco Bell. He arrived home by 6 p.m., leaving messages with his friends that he was okay. At 8 p.m., Tessitore got a call from a clearly shaken Singer who said, 'Julie, you and [her husband] Jeff need to come over right now.'"
When Tessitore and her husband arrived at Singer's house, he was curled up in a ball in his bedroom, shaking and sweating profusely. When he arrived at St. Luke's, he was dehydrated and had a fever of 103.
"I touched his lower back and he jumped up, so I knew that something was wrong with his kidneys," she says.
Around midnight his blood pressure started dropping and his system began collapsing. Meanwhile, a team of five doctors looked after him, all befuddled by the mysterious infection that had invaded his system.
"They believed that it might have been in his kidneys, and that's why his kidneys failed, and then it started to toxify the rest of his body," Tessitore says. He slipped into unconsciousness.
On Friday, May 1, there was sudden cause for optimism. "We were asking him questions, and we told him that if he could hear us to move his eyes, and his eyes moved back and forth," Tessitore says. "That was so, so wonderful. That was utter elation on that day. The mood in the hospital that day, my wedding day wasn't that happy. 'Cause we saw Brad. We knew that he could hear us and he was okay."
Whenever Singer's friends spoke to him, his blood pressure went up. When Tessitore and Mackin jokingly told him that they were standing in front of him with their tops off, the seemingly unconscious Singer's blood pressure soared.
By Saturday, it had become obvious that Singer's condition was actually worsening. Finally, on Sunday morning, May 3, he died.
Because of Singer's pre-existing lupus condition, and because lupus tends to lower one's immunity level, many people assumed that the disease played a part in his death, but doctors doubt that lupus was a cause. He simply died from a viral infection that defied detection, explanation or any standard treatment.
Though many people wonder how Singer's empire will be affected by his death, Zia Enterprises general manager Steve Wiley says that the operations of the company are carrying on as usual, and that the greatest effect on the business is the loss of Singer's presence.
The 33-year-old Wiley, who vaguely suggests a taller, darker-haired Greg Kinnear, had grown bored with the corporate atmosphere of Wherehouse Entertainment, when Singer called him five and a half years ago to talk business.
"We had what you could loosely call an interview," Wiley says. "We basically ended up bullshitting about music for a while. He was looking to see if I was a music nut, if I was cool or not. That was important to Brad sometimes."
The Zia Enterprises building--which also houses Impact, Epiphany and C.H.U.D., Singer's in-house graphics company--has the kind of informal vibe one would expect from a company run by Singer. Everyone wears tee shirts and shorts--including Wiley--and everyone has a healthy sense of the absurd.
What will outlive Singer is the ineffable way that he managed to find some 19- or 20-year-old who wasn't yet sure of his capabilities, and convince him he could accomplish something.
"He knew how to find people's grooves, and talk to them in a way that they'd want to be talked to," Bond says.
"I was completely in awe of him," says Sara Cina, booking agent at Long Wong's and the former manager of Dead Hot Workshop. "He was incredibly driven, and very motivating. Even without experience, he could see things in people, and he gave them a chance. He was very successful, but also wanting other people to be."
As Lanning puts it, "I think he kind of rooted for the underdog, which I really respected."
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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