For 50 years, Don Middleton has spread his love and knowledge of music to people of all ages.
Half a century ago, Don Middleton was a fledgling deliveryman without a high school diploma. It was 1961. A diesel mechanic he knew taught him how to play guitar, and for the first time, he felt like he had a true skill. Those early lessons launched a lifelong career that he calls his “miracle story.”
“With me not having a high school education, I always thought I was dumb,” Middleton explains. “When I started playing guitar, I worked really hard. I didn't feel stupid anymore.”
While in his early twenties, he bought himself a 1963 Gibson 345 for $650. “I had no business buying that,” he says today. “You bought cars for that [much] back then!”
More than 50 years later, Don Middleton is one of Peoria's music legends, as well as a gifted teacher, musician and business owner. But back in the 1960s, he had no idea where his hobby would take him. He started teaching at Matthews Music in downtown Peoria, where he had been taking lessons. He did this part-time, never expecting to take it full-time. And then, the Beatles hit it big.
Launching a Legacy
When Beatlemania came to the U.S., every kid in town wanted to learn how to play guitar. With that kind of enthusiasm, there was plenty of new business for a music instructor. In 1967, Don Middleton started teaching at Hill’s Music in Peoria. But just a year later, owner Bill Hill told him he was going to close the shop—he owned the building and planned to rent out the space. That's when Middleton decided it was time to start his own business, renting out that location on California Avenue.
He continued to teach and run his store until 1973, when he quit teaching to focus on the business side of things. “I mainly taught guitar back in those days,” Middleton notes. “All the music was handwritten back then. But when I quit teaching, that's when the business started to accelerate.”
First moving the shop to a location on Prospect Avenue, where he stayed for five years, Middleton then moved into a large, lower-level space at the corner of Glen Avenue and University Street. Don's Music Land stayed there for more than 27 years, before moving further northward to its present location at 7717 North University Street. Here it has remained for the last 16 years.
During his time in business, Middleton has seen the landscape of his industry transform over and over again. He says he brought Yamaha guitars to his store shortly after he opened, because he “lived and died Yamaha.” He also helped bring karaoke to Peoria back in the late ‘80s, because “we all love to sing, whether we're good at it or not.”
“Jim at The Basket Case [bar] was one of the first to buy a karaoke machine,” he adds, “and they still do karaoke there today.”
Navigating a New Era
In 1995, Middleton carried his business into the digital age with the creation of an early website. “My youngest son has always been into computers, so we made a website and tried to sell online,” he says. “People couldn't believe what we were trying to do.” By the early 2000s, he hadn’t seen much progress from online sales, so he decided to scale back. “Of course, that's right when everything started to take off with the internet,” he chuckles.
Through the ups and downs and massive changes Middleton has experienced during his years in business, he has seen other music stores come and go. But there is one that stayed. “I used to be the big boy in town,” he says. “Until Guitar Center showed up.”
When big-box stores come to town, there are usually some small-business casualties. But Middleton credits his longevity to his personal connection with customers. “Today, even with Guitar Center, this is a specialized industry. Our industry is not a volume business,” he explains. “There's a personalization to a musical instrument. I sell online, too, but you need to be able to feel it and touch it.” That applies to service after the sale as well—something he does much better than the big boxes. “I bend over backwards to satisfy my clients.”
Earlier this year, Middleton received the National Association of Music Merchants' Milestone Award for his 50 years as a dealer—a prestigious honor recognizing music businesses that have flourished and reached a noteworthy anniversary. “I may not have a high school education,” he notes, “but the Lord has given me common sense, which is worth all the money in the world.”
The Power of Music
Don Middleton knows the music industry has changed dramatically, but one thing hasn’t changed. He still believes in the power of music. “Everybody wants to play music, but there's only a certain percentage that will actually do it because it's a time commitment,” he says. “It takes years. But when you do get it, and you do play, there's no better feeling in the world. It is a lifetime achievement.”
Today, Don's Music Land works with learners of all ages, and even offers a Senior Wellness Music Program for music lovers ages 55 and up. “Music lets us use both sides of the brain, and not much else lets you do that,” he explains. “With the seniors, we do wellness activities like breathing exercises and echo clapping to a big chart of different notes. It needs total concentration, but I think it's very rewarding for them.”
Step into Don's Music Land today and you will find an impressive display of guitars, racks of music, parts and accessories, and maybe even a class in progress. You'll get a sense of the legacy, a feeling of old meeting new. Nowhere is this shown better than with Middleton’s prized possession, his picture wall of all the students who learned how to play an instrument at Don's Music Land.
“I have pictures on the wall going back to 1967,” he says. “A lot of people that I've taught are still my customers today. Looking at the pictures of my career is the greatest feeling you can imagine.” iBi
Don's Music Land offers classes and instrument repairs, and sells instruments and parts both in store and online. Visit DonsMusicLand.com for more information.