Everyone in the music industry knows George Daniels, the 55-year-old owner of George's Music Room. Puffy calls him Uncle George, R. Kelly claims him as a godfather, and he's Ron Isley's right-hand man.
You know him, too. Check the video for Isley's comeback hit "Contagious." That's George, cream suit and derby, marching in to whip R. Kelly's ass for messing around with Mr. Biggs's girl. And that's him again in the "Friend of Mine" video, clad in a black pinstripe zoot suit and Stetson, backing Mr. Biggs when he steps to Kelly, this time for cheating on Biggs's goddaughter, R & B starlet Kelly Price.
He was tapped to be in Kelly's "Feelin' on Your Booty" video with Lil' Kim, too. "But I can't be in everything," says Daniels, smiling behind his trademark sunglasses. He's seated in his small office, a music lover's museum packed with memorabilia and paperwork. Hanging from his neck is a platinum Twism chain, a gift from Shaquille O'Neal, who asked Daniels to consult for his new label.
After 32 years of steady growth, his comfy neighborhood music shop at 3915 W. Roosevelt has become the largest independent music retail store in the midwest, with a recently opened second location in Midway Airport. Dozens of awards hang on his walls; he's won Impact! Weekly's award for retail excellence so many times that the trade magazine finally renamed it in his honor. And he's mentored dozens of black artists and entrepreneurs trying to break into the business.
"He shows a lot of support for the independents in the city," says Reginald "Big Fub" McKinley, general manager of Legit Ballin' Records. McKinley first met Daniels while pushing Do or Die's debut album in 1995. Daniels stocked the album and let the group set up in-store promotions. "He was glad to see us doing something independently and not letting the majors stop us," says McKinley. "We were trying, and he was supportive of that."
The son of restaurateurs in New York, Daniels learned the value of customer service at an early age. When his parents separated, he was shifted from relative to relative between New York and Texas before coming to live with his brother, then a med student at UIC, at age 15. After graduating from Hirsch High School he got a job as a janitor at Chess Records, where his job description quickly expanded to include "stomping"--creating background noise for recordings--and serving as a driver for artists. "That was during the days when Chicago was the real heart of the music industry," says Daniels. But to him Chess was just another part-time job, one of many he took while studying at Loop College.
He later worked for a cleaning company that serviced United Distributors, the first black-owned distribution company in the nation and part of Michigan Avenue's legendary Record Row. Owned by brothers Ernie and George Leaner, United Distributors handled Motown's Tamla and Soul labels and Chicago's Stax Records. When Ernie opened Ernie's One Stop, he asked Daniels to come aboard. Daniels helped buy and stock the music and also worked behind the counter. "Eventually," he says, "I figured I could own my own store."
George's Music Room opened December 12, 1969, just days before his 21st birthday. "I opened the store with six albums and 100 45s," he says. He ran his store quietly, hiring neighborhood kids and building a steady customer base in his community. It wasn't until ten years ago that he attracted national attention--for his public criticism of Billboard's chart system, which supplied white independent stores with computers to help track music sales. It didn't give computers to any black stores.
Daniels spoke out against the practice at every music industry convention he could get to. "That's what got me out of my shell," he says. "Prior to that, I was a pretty quiet guy. I'd run from the mike."
Now he can be seen dressed to the nines wheeling and dealing at just about every industry function from LA to New York. "He's the most stylish retailer in the nation," says Allan Cole, midwest promotions director for Clive Davis's J Records. He's even been spotted pulling up to clubs E2 and the Dragon Room on a 1950s Harley Davidson. "Life isn't over at 55," he says. "I'm just getting cranked up."
His friends and proteges--Shaq, McKinley, Vibe magazine president Kenard Gibbs, Columbia Records promotions coordinator Jerome Kemp--show their gratitude each December at Daniels's celebrity-filled birthday party. Last year more than 1,000 guests came from all over the country to honor their friend and mentor at the Hyatt Regency on Wacker.
"I've had a lot of wonderful mentors in my life," says Daniels, naming his brother as one of them. "I moved around so much that I never developed any friendships from my childhood. I guess that's why everywhere I go now, I make the people around me my family."
And to Daniels, relationships are more important than accolades. "If I were this great businessman I'd have chains all over the place," he says. "I'm a merchant. Merchants help the community. Merchants know how to work with people. That's what's important to me."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Martha Brock Photography.