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The beat goes on, and on, and on, at Lillos

The British Invasion, blues rock, garage rock, glam rock, sensitive singer-songwriters, smooth jazz, fusion, disco, new wave, grunge and the revival of the accordion as a hip instrument.
It’s all in the family at Lillo Music, with founders Vic and Doreen, with daughter Corinne Lillo who runs the shop’s music programs.
It’s all in the family at Lillo Music, with founders Vic and Doreen, with daughter Corinne Lillo who runs the shop’s music programs.

The British Invasion, blues rock, garage rock, glam rock, sensitive singer-songwriters, smooth jazz, fusion, disco, new wave, grunge and the revival of the accordion as a hip instrument.

Musical trends by the score have come and gone since Vic and Doreen Lillo borrowed $500 from each of their families to open Lillo's Music in Old Strathcona.

“There were a lot of homes around here then, they didn't have the apartments like they have now,” Vic Lillo says. “But we always had the University of Alberta nearby, which was great for us.”

The cheery 78-year-old businessman, known for his signature saying “hey, hey, hey”, grew up in a family band in the small community of Riley, southeast of Edmonton.

“I was doing a lot of gigs around town on piano and tenor sax,” he says.

“All kinds of things … weddings, banquets, we had to make a living,” Doreen says. “And we had also started a family so we had to make a living to feed them.”

As the family grew to four children – all musicians – so did the business. When The Beatles arrived, the interest in guitars, amps and drums that had been kindled by early rock ‘n' roll simply exploded. All of the couple's children, and their six grandchildren, have all spent time working in the store.

It hasn't always been easy. Valleys follow peaks in any business, and the music store business has also seen its share of challenges. Guitar heroes haven't dominated the music charts in years affecting sales around the globe. Many parents no longer rigorously encourage their children to play. Over the years, Lillo's has opened and closed locations in several Alberta communities as well as Vancouver and even, Hollywood, Calif., where for a time it did very well, according to Vic.

But the Lillos appear to take it all in stride, coming to work every day, though at reduced hours and still living in the same southside Edmonton home where they raised their family.

“We've never considered this to be work. This was our hobby that we made into our profession and our work,” Vic says.

“Many of our students have become our good friends,” Doreen adds.

Looking around the shop, at 10848 82nd Avenue, the couple's wide-ranging interest in music is apparent. They don't just sell instruments here, they also have a repair shop in the basement doing work for other stores, and a music school upstairs, run by their daughter Corinne.

Though they may not have as many instruments to choose from as the biggest chain stores, the variety is still interesting, curated by a couple who care. And even after all of these years, the enthusiastic salesman in Vic still gets excited talking about it. He points to a 1956 black Gibson Les Paul in the store's vintage instrument showcase. “That black beauty is worth $95,000,” he says. The case also holds many Fenders, Gretsches and other Gibsons.

The store still has a few drums and PA systems for sale, but Vic says they are getting out of those products. Still, if you want a guitar, saxophone, flute, violin or accordion – here they really excel – this is place is worth the visit.

“And we have a great selection of ukuleles,” Doreen adds.

Yes they do, but besides all the gleaming products, there is a comforting sense of the past at Lillo's Music. This is the same kind of friendly mom and pop music store where grandpas or even dads with musical intentions went to try out instruments and check out the deals on lazy Saturday afternoons in their own younger days.

It is a cozy, unintimidating place where the owners realize you probably won't buy that expensive guitar you take down to strum, but they don't mind. They know you might come here for lessons, or to get your strings, music books and reeds.

Vic and Doreen have nurtured, or at least known, a who's who of Edmonton's musical talent over the past half century. Many are friends.

Vic can talk about becoming acquaintances with some of the giants and innovators in the musical instrument business at trade shows. People who created the sound we all listen to, such as Leo Fender and Jim Marshall. Without them, what would Hendrix have sounded like? Or about the time they sold a harmonica to Stevie Wonder or B.B. King rented Acoustic amps.

Doreen almost beams with pride, or at least as much as the slightly reserved Doreen can beam, as she tells about the various times a humble guitarist named Joe Perry has visited the store, whether his little band named Aerosmith is playing in Edmonton or just passing through.

Perry has tried out every guitar in the vintage showcase, she says. He has crawled through the rabbit warren of a basement stacked high with cases and old advertising material looking for who knows what.

“He's a really nice guy,” she says. “And he always leaves with a guitar.”

After spending a little time in Lillo's, it is easy to see why he keeps coming back. Like good music, some experiences are just authentic, plain and simple, and that has become a rare quality.