Sam the Record Man has died, for the second time.
He was Sam Sniderman, namesake co-founder of an iconic Canadian record-store empire that perished in 2007, a victim of deep-pocketed rivals and the music-industry downturn, one caused by a sweeping digital-download fascination. He passed away in his sleep on Sunday. He was 92.
Sniderman sold records, lots of them, but there was much more to it than that. He sold himself. Many will remember the Sam the Record Man commercials of the late 1980s, in which child actors portrayed a young Gordie Howe, Pierre Trudeau and Sam Sniderman. What would they grow up to become? A hockey player and a prime minister, the first two boys presciently and boldly declared. As for the Victrola-distracted entrepreneur-to-be, he was sure his future would involve owning the “best chain of record stores in Canada, with great music at great prices.”
And then the proud kicker, from the present-day Sniderman: “I said it, and I did it.”
Not only did he say and do it, Sniderman succeeded with a strong commitment to the Canadian music scene – even before there really was such a thing. “He went out on a limb and stuck up for us in those early days when we were trying our best to get something happening,” said the legendary singer Anne Murray from her home in Nova Scotia on Monday, recalling an era dominated by U.S. labels and artists in the 1960s. “He proved to be quite good for us, and we proved to be quite good for him in the end. But it started with him.”
Bernie Finkelstein, a fellow Canadian music-industry pioneer, agreed. “Nobody thought Canadians were money-making propositions. I think he genuinely cared about the music he sold. And I think he wanted to make a lot of money, and, of course, he did make a lot of money.”
The history of the vinyl-built empire extends back to the Great Depression. The family business, Sniderman Radio Sales and Service, was established in Toronto on College Street in 1929 by Sniderman’s brother Sidney. A teenaged Sam introduced the sale of records in 1937, when the hits of the day were Bing Crosby’s Sweet Leilani, Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing and Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump.
Eventually, record sales became the backbone of the business. In 1959, a second outlet was opened in a Yonge Street furniture store. Two years later, the two outlets were consolidated as Sam the Record Man on downtown Yonge Street.
By the end of the 1960s, the Sam the Record Man store on the bustling, neon-glazed Yonge Street was the mecca of music retail. “It was the place to go,” recalled Finklestein, who would go on to form True North Records, an early Canadian-based independent label. “It was where I bought my first Bob Dylan record, on the second floor, in the folk section.”
The flagship Sam’s was an overstuffed place, with irregular hallways and stairways and a knowledgeable staff that was wary of tourists, but more than willing to turn on fellow music geeks. “It had a members-only feel to it,” said Jim Cuddy, the Blue Rodeo singer-songwriter, speaking during a break from a recording session. “But once the staff knew you really loved music, they were your best friends.”
Like Cuddy, the Juno-winning pop artist Hawksley Workman saw a visit to Sam’s as a musical rite of passage. “It was a temple,” said Workman, who would make regular visits to the store from Huntsville, Ont., with his brother and father in the 1980s. “There was a palpable energy of people who were absolutely obsessed with wanting to discover music. I think we’re missing that today.”
At its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, more than 130 Sam’s stores were in operation nationally, accounting for an estimated 15 to 20 per cent of the national retail record business at the time. The number of stores in the chain dwindled by the late 1990s.
A year after Sniderman retired in 2000; the business went bankrupt. A couple of franchise outlets remained, including the lone Sam’s still open today, in Belleville, Ont.
The Yonge Street store was reopened in 2002 (operated by sons Robert and Jason), but the spinning-record billboard was shut off permanently in 2007. The prime location was expropriated by Ryerson University; the three-storey building was demolished.
Memories remain. Holger Petersen, one of the mainstays of the Canadian roots music scene and still president of Alberta-based Stony Plain Records (the label he founded in 1976), recalled his early experiences at the flagship store. “I used to be one of those people who went up to that top floor and went through those tens of thousands of albums that were there for ridiculously low prices,” he recalled from his office in Edmonton. “I’d spend hours up there sometimes and come out with a handful of records – maybe even one record – and that made my day.”
Later Peterson, the long-time host of CBC Radio One’s popular Saturday Night Blues, recorded, in Edmonton, a single on the London Records label titled Joe Chicago featuring the bluesman Walter (Shaky) Horton and a local band known as Hot Cottage. It was Petersen’s first professional production gig and the result, in fact, still serves as the theme song for Saturday Night Blues. “I remember going in ’72 into the Sam’s store in Toronto – at that time they used to carry pretty much every single that was released – and flipping through the racks and finding it there. It really was a stamp. It was kind of like my initiation. I actually felt like I was part of the music industry.”
Once Stony Plain got its sea-legs and became an established part of the Canadian cultural landscape, Petersen would host anniversary events for the label in Toronto every five years. “Sam’s would always be there for us. They’d put up displays, front-rack some of our best catalogue releases. … It was really an important part of marketing in this country, Canadian music especially.”
Famously, Sniderman was a hands-on owner. Finkelstein recalled seeing his label’s first album (Bruce Cockburn’s 1970 self-titled debut) on display in the the second floor’s folk-music wing. Although delighted with the record’s placement, Finkelstein asked the store’s iconic proprietor if the album’s display could be placed on the higher-traffic ground floor. Sniderman obliged, and then some. “Not only did he do it, he carried it right downstairs himself and put it in the front rack for me. He was a marvellous person that way.”
The passing of Sam the Record Man, the store and the man, is perhaps symbolic of something greater than one chain of retail outlets and the one man responsible for it – that being the social record-buying ritual. A mouse-click or a keyboard-tap is cold cyber comfort, compared to the rubbing of shoulders among the bins of CD or vinyl. “To me, the best part of church was the singing and the sandwiches,” Workman said, “and that’s what Sam the Record Man was. It was both. It was an opportunity to commune.”
With a report from James Adams