He said it, he did it. Sam “the Record Man” Sniderman loved catch phrases and used them frequently to promote himself and the family business that bore his name.
But, unlike the claims of many entrepreneurial blowhards, Sam’s slogans were no empty boasts. He actually did create the “best chain of record stores in Canada, with great music at great prices,” like he boldly predicted he would, and built a reputation as the greatest promoter of domestic talent that Canadian music ever had.
Long before CanCon regulations, which he helped to usher in, Sniderman made a habit of giving prominent display space in his stores to domestic artists. Gordon Lightfoot remembers how Sniderman faithfully stocked all of his earliest recordings at the Sam the Record Man flagship store in downtown Toronto. “Sam always kept my first album plainly on view,” the Canadian music legend recalls, “right next to Bob Dylan’s. He got behind my first Massey Hall show, too, and ran ads on that in his store.”
Taking artists under his wings became one of Sniderman’s trademarks. Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn and Lighthouse are among the many artists who benefited from his largesse. Sam’s son Jason says his dad would often counsel musicians, dispensing career advice and pep talks in a fatherly way. “He had Randy (Bachman) and Burton (Cummings) up to his office in the 1960s when the Guess Who weren’t getting radio play,” Jason recalls. “He was very positive about what they were doing and encouraged them, saying, ‘Just stick with it, guys.’”
Similarly, when Liona Boyd made her debut at Carnegie Hall in 1975, Sniderman and his first wife, Eleanor, were so enthusiastic with their support that they flew down to New York for the show, with critic William Littler in tow. Afterwards, they took the guitarist out to dinner and showered her with praise. Says Boyd: “Sam believed I could be bigger than the classical world and it was he who pushed me to sign with Bruce Allen for management.”
Generosity seemed to come naturally to the Toronto-born Sniderman, despite growing up during the Depression of humble roots. His venture into record retail, legend has it, was an attempt to impress the music-loving Eleanor. His brother Sidney ran Sniderman Radio Sales and Service on College Street and in 1937 Sam began selling English and many foreign-language albums there. During the ’50s, he introduced listening booths where customers could sample everything from Shostakovich and Satchmo to Buddy Holly.
By the time it moved to 357 Yonge in 1961, the business was doing a roaring trade under the name of Sam the Record Man. Sam’s larger-than-life personality filled the store’s three creaky, uneven floors, which were decorated with posters, promotional banners, autographed artist photos and contained aisle-upon-aisle of 400,000 records across all genres. Amid the chaos, Sniderman took great pride in being able to locate even the most hard-to-find albums for his loyal customers.
At its peak, the Sam the Record Man chain included 137 retail locations across Canada and accounted for as much as 25 per cent of the country’s recorded music sales. The mammoth Yonge Street store became a world-famous Toronto landmark, with its giant neon signs of two spinning records acting as a beacon for music-lovers from far and wide. Visiting artists from Liberace and Tony Bennett to Elton John and Alice Cooper frequented the store, while the diversity of Sam’s selections became a source of influence for many Canadian musicians.
“Those upstairs corridors and labyrinths of obscure folk and jazz sparked my imagination,” admits Hall of Fame producer-artist Daniel Lanois. “As a rising record maker, I drew a lot of encouragement from the massive assortment of music there. My visits to the store made me feel like I was part of a fascinating, like-minded creative community.”
Brendan Canning, of Broken Social Scene, remembers the ritual visits he made as teenager, taking the Go Train from the suburbs to Union Station and then up Yonge Street for hours of record hunting. Recalls Canning: “‘Mom, I’m going downtown to go Christmas shopping’ was really ‘Mom, I’m going downtown to Sam’s to buy Slayer and Black Sabbath records.’”
A savvy businessman and tough deal-maker, Sniderman presided over customers and staff with an ever-present smile. Some of his employees went on to become musicians themselves, including David Wilcox, Jay Ferguson and Steven Page. Sam’s annual Boxing Day sales became legendary, drawing lineups around the block of people looking for bargains, while his flagship store’s midnight madness record releases inspired the “late-night record shop” reference in Page’s Barenaked Ladies hit “Brian Wilson.”
Moving with the times, Sniderman transitioned successfully from vinyl and tapes to CD and DVD formats and initially weathered stiff competition on the Yonge Street Strip, first from A&A’s next door and then from nearby HMV and Sunrise. But the constantly changing market ultimately proved too challenging and Sam retired in 2000 before the business declared bankruptcy. Sons Jason and Bobby Sniderman reopened and ran the flagship store before finally closing in 2007.
The following year, the Yonge Street site was sold to Ryerson University, which leveled the building to make way for a new student centre. Ryerson had committed to resurrecting the iconic neon signs, which have official heritage conservation status, but so far their status is in limbo.
Sniderman co-founded a sound recordings archive at the University of Toronto that contains an invaluable collection of 100,000 LPs, 60,000 CDs and 30,000 78 rpm recordings. An inductee into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Governor General’s Award and the Junos’ Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada for his “constant support of Canadian talent and concern for the preservation of our cultural heritage.”
Tireless mentor and shameless showman, Sam “I said it, I did it” Sniderman built his national chain and ensured that Canadian artists were heard at home and abroad.
If Ryerson ever fulfils its promise, the giant neon spinning discs that drew millions to the Yonge Street music emporium will serve as a fitting reminder of his enormous legacy.
Sam Sniderman June 15, 1920 – September 23, 2012