Remembering the man who helped shape so many of our music memories.
Sam Sniderman was typically modest when he assessed his contribution to Canadian music. “I have done more than any other individual to forward the recording industry in Canada,” he boasted to the Globe and Mail in 1967.
But it wasn’t just ego talking. Over a 60-year retailing career Sniderman proudly championed Canadian artists, whether it was prodding major labels to sign local artists, encouraging government-funded talent development programs, or providing the first significant sales floor space to artists ranging from Gordon Lightfoot to Raffi.
The announcement late last night of Sam the Record Man’s death has rekindled many memories of his landmark Yonge Street store five years after it closed, former customers fondly recalling the first record they bought there, spending hours looking for obscure imports, and joining the crowds lined up for the annual Boxing Day sale.
Sam Sniderman entered the record business in 1937, when the 17-year-old budding entrepreneur was given space in his brother Sid’s radio shop on College Street. In the years afterward, he gave several accounts as to why he was drawn to records. The usual story is that he believed it would help woo a girl who loved classical music (if so, it worked—he married Eleanor Koldafsky a few years later). In another telling, Sniderman remembered being wowed by tales about the industry from an RCA Victor salesman, even if those tales were meant to push records. “I was intrigued with the stories he was telling,” Sniderman recalled in 1996, “and I wanted to find some sort of niche for myself.”
By the 1950s, records overtook the shop’s radio sales, leading to a name change: that was when the store became Sam the Record Man. It moved to 347 Yonge Street in 1961, a decision Sniderman once admitted was spurred by arch-rival A&A’s tactic of pasting his ads on their window with his name removed. The battle between the Yonge Street titans was fierce, with Sam’s developing an edge for its bargain closeouts and deep selection. With his trademark wide smile, Sniderman told the Globe and Mail in 1967 that “we’re friendly competitors, except that we’ll stab each other in the back whenever we get a chance.”
Sniderman was a hands-on owner, strolling through the store to advise customers. Local lore held that he had memorized the entire inventory, an impressive feat given its depth. The store became a place where people who came in for a particular record quickly lost a few hours flipping through the bins. Each expansion added to the ramshackle (if sometimes maddening) charm, bringing with it more crooked floors and mismatched rooms. To many tourists, a trip to Toronto wasn’t complete without walking through the doors under the spinning neon discs.
Sitting still was difficult. Sniderman said he was “driven by a compulsion to become involved. I can’t just sit on the sidelines. I’m into an idea and before I know it I’ve said things and made commitments and I know deep down I can’t make six appointments for 2 p.m. on a single day.” Among the things that kept him busy were establishing the Sniderman Recordings Collection at the University of Toronto (which comprises some 180,000 sound recordings), serving as a director of CHIN radio, supporting the Yonge Street pedestrian mall during the early 1970s, investing in a neighbouring Chinese restaurant which bore his name, and assisting numerous agencies devoted to developing Canadian musical talent.
Helping homegrown musicians was a point of pride; Sniderman maintained that “talent is a country’s best resource.” He pushed multinational companies to pick up Canadian acts, promising to sell at least 1,000 copies of any album they offered. He reputedly landed Joni Mitchell her first spot at the Mariposa Festival. “If Ottawa had any sense,” he told the Globe and Mail in 1971, “it would buy out Sam the Record Man and build those 90 stores just to plug Canadian talent. Why if each shop sold just five discs apiece, we’d have a national hit on our hands.” He envisioned a federal “Canadian Talent Development Board” which would underwrite artists who wanted to record or tour. Not that there wasn’t a profit motive involved: “I make plenty of cash out of Canadian records,” Sniderman said. “If I didn’t, I’d throw them out of the store.”
Musicians became loyal customers, even if it meant Sniderman had to cater to their whims. Glenn Gould annually called the store on Christmas Eve for last minute gifts. When Sniderman told Gould how crazy the last-minute rush was, the pianist pleaded “please Sam, do this for me. I need you.”
When Sam the Record Man went bankrupt in 2001, he admitted the one song that he would take if stuck on a desert island: Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me.” “Anne’s voice had helped through bad periods before,” Sniderman observed. “I find it very comforting.”
For music lovers, his store was equally comforting.
Additional material from the February 11, 1967, August 21, 1971, and November 23, 1996 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the November 3, 2001 and June 30, 2007 editions of the Toronto Star.