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applause please

Nicholas Jennings gives walking tours on the melodious history of Yonge Street and helped save the iconic Sam the Record Man sign.Donald Gillies

With the series Applause, Please, The Globe and Mail recognizes the efforts of dedicated citizens and those behind the scenes who make a difference in arts and cultural programs and institutions.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Toronto was a live-show hotbed and the centre of the Canadian musical universe, thriving with coffee houses in Yorkville and clubs on Yonge Street. How heavy was it? Even Joni Mitchell couldn't catch a break. "Darling, don't bother me, I don't like to associate with failures," Riverboat owner Bernie Fiedler told Mitchell once. "Yes, I'll call you when I need a good dishwasher," he cracked on another occasion.

It wasn't just live music. Sam Sniderman boasted that his flagship Sam the Record Man shop on Yonge Street was "without exaggeration, the largest store in the world devoted exclusively to records."

High times, then. But if a generation learned anything from Blood, Sweat & Tears (and singer David Clayton-Thomas, who cut his musical teeth in Toronto), it was that "what goes up must come down." The scenes of Yorkville and Yonge Street dried up. And Sam's? It took a while, but the big store closed in 2007. An expanding Ryerson University purchased the property, but would later renege on an agreement to restore and reinstall the iconic neon signage, memorable for its giant spinning wheels.

"I felt betrayed," says Nicholas Jennings, an author, esteemed music journalist and Ryerson alumnus. "I thought it was shameful. The university got the land in exchange for the promise to preserve the signs."

The outrage of Jennings (who documented the early days of the Toronto folk and rock-music history with his 1997 book Before the Gold Rush: Flashbacks to the Dawn of the Canadian Sound) was shared by others. A Save our Sam the Record Man Sign Facebook account was set up.

Letters of support from Gordon Lightfoot, Leslie Feist, Gord Downie and others were circulated. City councillors were lobbied.

The Jennings-led effort paid off. "Eventually, city hall forced Ryerson to honour the deal," says the writer, who gives walking tours on the melodious history of Yonge Street and who consulted on a pair of giant music murals commissioned by the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area.

Soft-spoken but passionate, Jennings doesn't get paid for his work to preserve the city's rock-music heritage. "My wife calls it a very time-consuming hobby of mine," he says. "But I think it's important."

Since December, the restored Sam the Record Man has lorded sky-high over Yonge-Dundas Square, atop a city-owned building. "I think it looks fantastic," Jennings says, "especially at night."

Once again the Blood, Sweat & Tears song from 1968 had it right: "Spinnin' wheel, got to go 'round."

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