Raffe Simonian was so knowledgeable about jazz that, when he met the great composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn, the musician asked him, “What do you play, Raffe?”
To which Mr. Simonian replied, “I play records.”
He had so many of them that he started Raffe’s Record Riot at 4350 N. Cicero.
“It was always a dream of his to open a record store,” said his daughter Lara.
And though the edge of a CTA bus turnaround might not seem like the best location to sustain a business, music fans have been flipping through the bins at Raffe’s for nearly 20 years, hunting for vintage vinyl, rarities, cassettes, even old laser discs.
Mr. Simonian, a standout athlete at Schurz High School who went to have a 35-year career as an English teacher and coach at Taft High School, died last week at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, apparently the result of a heart attack and other health problems, according to his daughter. He was 85.
Mr. Simonian “loved sports and records. That’s what he talked about the most,” his daughter said.
Before opening the shop on Cicero, he had a used-records store in the mid-1980s at 6714 N. Northwest Hwy. in Edison Park.
It was almost a necessity. At one point, he dug out the crawl space of his Park Ridge home to expand his basement, which was lined floor-to-ceiling with records — which posed a hazard to his daughter and her friends when they were growing up.
“My friends didn’t want to come over because he’d put us to work filing them and alphabetizing them,” his daughter said.
His store’s mission statement has a no-frills, “High Fidelity” ethos: “To be the most customer focused, non-elitist, music store in Chicago . . . Our selection and services will be based on customer purchase history and customer requests and not dictated by record companies or current trends.”
He grew up on the Northwest Side, the son of a survivor of the Armenian genocide. His mother Lucy and aunt Veronica saw members of their family “killed in front of them,” Lara Simonian said.
His mother “had to cross the desert to Syria. I think she was 13, and my aunt was 10, and they were helped by the nomadic tribes across the desert,” said Judith Wittmuss, Mr. Simonian’s sister.
After a stay in an orphanage in Lebanon, the girls were reunited with their father in America.
In Chicago, Lucy married Oscar Simonian, who owned Caravan Rugs at Milwaukee and Wilson.
Their son Raffe grew up near Pensacola and Long, attending Mayfair grade school, now the site of the Irish American Heritage Center. He learned to play baseball, tennis, basketball and chess at Kilbourn Park.
At Schurz, he was most valuable player of the basketball team. He averaged 32 points a game as a senior, according to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association, where he’s in the Hall of Fame.
At DePaul University, he played basketball for legendary coach Ray Meyer, his sister said. He had planned to study law, but his father’s death meant he had to find a job. He decided to be a teacher.
Mr. Simonian often attended shows by his jazz favorites, including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.
“Dizzy came to the house” to see Mr. Simonian’s record collection, according to another daughter, Leslie. She said he charmed Ellington, who signed each of the 100 or so LPs Mr. Simonian brought him with a salutation from one of his compositions: “Love You Madly.”
He traded and sold records all over the world, including a chunk of his collection to a German buyer for about $50,000, according to Lara Simonian.
“One year, I even bought a Eurail Pass and visited all the people I had traded with,” he told the Chicago Reader in 1995.
He met his wife, the former Ferryl Fisher, when she was student-teaching at Taft. They were married until her death in 2016.
Mr. Simonian adored Toby, his Pomeranian. “He took that dog with him everywhere,” Lara Simonian said. “They would drive around to the record sales, would go to estates sales, flea markets.”
But one day Toby disappeared from the yard. Mr. Simonian grieved for his little dog for two years or so, until suddenly, at an estate sale three blocks from his house, “He sees this woman with a bunch of Pomeranians.” One of them was Toby.
“He called Toby’s name, and she came to him,” Lara Simonian said.
The woman had adopted Toby from a shelter, but “gave him back,” his daughter said.
Mr. Simonian is also survived by three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.