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Styles Music outlasts them all

To hear Lou Styles tell it, his early days were straight out of a Martin Scorsese film, minus the gangsters.

“I thought the whole world was Italian,” the soon to be 92-year-old said. “And anywhere you went, you’d hear a kid practicing.”

Mr. Styles, founder of Pomona’s Styles Music, which opened its doors in 1978, grew up surrounded by music and by his extended Italian family, all of whom lived on the same block in Providence, Rhode Island.

He was one of 10 kids. Asked where he fit into that long line of mouths to feed during the Great Depression, he said playfully, “I don’t know, I got lost.”

The Styles (given name “Orabona”) are a family of musicians going back at least four generations. His father, who played mandolin and guitar, was his early champion, toting the youngster to local music competitions when he was still in grade school. Before long, the accordionist was gigging regularly. All this before he turned 12.

He toured throughout his early life in various bands, first on the East Coast and later out west to Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, throughout the US and Canada, and then finally, in a gig that would change his life, to the West Coast.

“The first time I came out to California was in 1949,” Mr. Styles said. “My wife and I were just amazed. It was so spacious. The weather was fantastic. People were very nice. I said, ‘You know, when we settle down, this is where we gotta live.’”

Getting work in California was easier. “Everyone and his brother wasn’t a musician,” he said of those early days. “So it seemed like an opportunity with less resistance.”

He built his first house in Pomona in 1952. In 1972, he purchased a lot at the very top of Claraboya in Claremont, where he built a sprawling view home where he and his wife, Julie, still reside.

For three decades, “Lou Styles and the Stylists,” the show band he fronted, were in high demand, and booked up to 28 days a month. They were the house band at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas for a stretch in the 1960s, rubbing elbows with the famous and infamous of the Rat Pack era.

“It was fascinating,” Mr. Styles said. “I was overwhelmed with what was going on. So much entertainment. I would watch these musicians, they’d finish a job and wouldn’t even put their instrument in a case, they’d walk out the door and go play another job. There was so much music. It was wonderful.

“Today it’s probably not even one-tenth of what it used to be, and that’s a pity.”

By 1978, Mr. Styles was 50 and facing a quandary of many aging musicians: how to make a living in music without the punishment of the road, and how to be present as a husband and father. Something clearly had to give, and Styles Music was born.

It was a family operation from day one. Mr. Styles, wife Julie, and sons Lou Jr. and Gregg all had a hand in building the business.

That first location, in La Verne, was a place in time.

“We had records and tapes, guitars and amps and music stuff, and also bongs and rolling papers,” said Lou Jr., 60, who, along with his brother Gregg, 54, manage Styles Music today. “So that was the beginning. It was all integrated in. We figured it was all music.”

With the 1983 move to the corner of Towne Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, Styles got out of the recorded music business, selling off their inventory to Claremont’s Rhino Records, and bowed out of the head shop sector as well.

Lou Jr., 19 at the time, took on a day-to-day role at the store.

The plan was to stay in the Pomona location for four or five years, grow the business, and then buy a larger space. “But we’re still here,” Lou Jr. said. They bought the stand-alone building in the late 1990s, which proved significant in assuring Styles’ longevity.

By Lou Jr.’s count, Styles has weathered at least three recessions since opening its doors—in 1983, 2000 and 2008.

“Through all of the downturns I think it was just the fact that we were small that we were able to fly under the radar and not get killed,” Lou Jr. said.

Indeed, some of Styles’ competitors, such as Ontario Music, Pomona’s The Guitar Store, and West Covina’s Hanich Music, all larger operations, all went belly up in the ‘90s and 2000s.

From the top down, the music business circa 1978 would not recognize its 2019 counterpart. Everything has changed. The fact that Styles is still here is a testament to one family’s perseverance, patience and vision.

One major shock to that 1978 model would no doubt be that the symbol of rock ‘n’ roll, and prime mover of musical instrument sales for nearly 60 years, is officially falling out of favor.

“The thing that’s really changed is the guitar heroes are gone,” Lou Jr. said. “The thing that really drove the guitar business was Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. The modern guys don’t have the recognition and the clout that these guys had back in the seventies and eighties.

“The music now, there’s no instruments; it’s all on computers,” Lou Jr. said.

The days of a garage band on every block may be over, but the rock ‘n’ roll curious will always have a home at Styles Music.

“I think a lot of it has to do with whether or not people get initially inspired by an experience,” Lou Jr. said. “I tell people all the time, ‘Find a neighbor or somebody and play the blues for an hour. Even if you’re not that great, just learn the three chords and jam for an hour.

“Because the magic, as you know and I know, is when you get together with other people, you put a tune together, and you get that little chill, and you’re lookin’ at each other, and it’s workin,’ and then you’re hooked. A lot of people never get to that stage.”

The elder Mr. Styles, once a seemingly gruff—to this teenager at least—intimidating figure behind the counter, is now a sweet, soft spoken, abundantly grateful man looking back on a life in music.

“I started this store and I’ve been lucky enough to have two of the best sons that work their butts off for me,” he said. “I only come in to visit and say hello. They make all the decisions, especially this guy,” he said, gesturing to Lou Jr. “He’s my right hand man. And Gregg is my left hand man. And between the two of ‘em...”

“You don’t need no hands,” Lou Jr. joked.

“It’s been a wonderful turn,” Mr. Styles continued. “Like I say, they taught me everything I know. We’re still here. I get a call from them every day…my boys...”

Styles Music, 777 E. Foothill Blvd., Pomona, will celebrate its 42nd year in business in 2020. For more information, go to stylesmusic.com or call (909) 621-0549.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com