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Record store icon spins last tune
Sam The Record Man founder Sam Sniderman dies at 92

Meredith MacLeod September 25, 2012

Sam Sniderman is credited with changing the shape of Canada’s musical landscape over many decades.

He’s also blamed by some for destroying a portion of the historical streetscape of James Street North in Hamilton.

The charismatic founder of the legendary Sam the Record Man music store chain died peacefully Sunday in Toronto at 92.

Sniderman is a celebrated figure in Canadian music, known for his unwavering support for Canadian performers. But some in this city blame the businessman for not doing enough to shore up the aging Tivoli Theatre, a historic building he owned next door to his James Street North record outlet.

The theatre’s front portion, originally a carriage factory dating to 1875, collapsed in 2004 and was soon demolished, along with the Sam’s record store that closed in 2001.

The Snidermans had applied to also demolish the historic lobby and auditorium, earning them the condemnation of history buffs, but the city denied the request. Shortly after, the Snidermans sued the city over the costs of the demolition.

Sam the Record Man, a family business, thrived on Yonge Street for four decades and spawned more than 100 other retail locations across Canada, including three in Hamilton and one in Burlington.

The stores’ neon red signs, creaky floors, kitschy musical memorabilia and packed shelves and bins full of music of all genres were landmarks in downtown Hamilton, Toronto, Montreal and other cities across the country. Sam’s staff were known for their encyclopedic knowledge — sometimes fanaticism — about music.

It started with Sniderman himself.

His knowledge of obscure records, the self-financed ones recorded in basements and garages by unknown bands, was The Record Man’s mark of expertise. Sniderman could dig up even the strangest album out of 400,000 titles for a diehard fan who walked into his shop.

“Sometimes I got stumped. But more often than not, you could ask me for the most obscure record on the planet and I would disappear for a few minutes and come back with it in my hands,” Sniderman told The Star in 2001.

“Somebody once tried to catch me by asking for a recording of war music played by U-boat crews in attack mode during World War II. I found it.”

Sam’s was unique in the music retail world but aggressive competitors and the first signs of what digital downloads would do to the record business took their toll and after years of struggles, the chain went bankrupt in 2001.

The two-storey Hamilton location on James Street North had closed its doors several months earlier. The shop was one of the last retail destinations in the core and the first signs of a revival for the street now known for its hopping arts and cultural scene, were several years away.

At the time, Sniderman told The Spectator he wasn’t giving up on the city.

“I think the downtown will turn around one day. We may be back there,” he said, before stopping himself.

“I’m 81 though. What am I saying?”

His family said Sniderman died peacefully in his sleep Sunday, surrounded by loved ones, in Toronto.

The prolific businessman held on to his trademark stubbornness and fierce independence — the very traits that helped propel his music empire — until the end, his son Jason said.

“He never really retired, he was always interested in what was going on,” he said in a phone interview.

“He believed in Canadian music because it was something that spoke to him from inside,” he said.

“Because his belief in Canadian music was so strong, he was tireless in how he pursued its success and I think that’s his true legacy.”

Mike Cunliffe, the last manager of the downtown Hamilton store, says Sniderman was a “great man for Canadian music.”

He was also irascible. “And any synonym you can look up for irascible matched him, too. But he could also be most charming.”

Sniderman could be demanding of employees and always stressed that customer service was No. 1. “He always stressed that a customer shouldn’t walk out the door empty-handed.”

Sniderman called Cunliffe once to complain about sales at the James Street store.

“I told him we had the highest per customer sales rate behind only Toronto and Montreal. If we got the customers, we got the sales but the customers weren’t coming.”

Cunliffe challenged his boss to give him a solution.

“He said, ‘I don’t know, Mike.’ He never bothered me again about it.”

Cunliffe, who grew up in Burlington, says he made many trips to the Toronto flagship store to search for folk records.

“There was nothing like it around here at the time. It was like a pilgrimage for us. I would find British and Irish folk albums that weren’t available anywhere else.”

Sometimes called the Godfather of Canadian Music, Sniderman helped kick-start the careers of many Canadian music greats, including The Guess Who, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. At one time or another, they all took refuge on the cushy sofa in Sniderman’s office, itself a museum to the country’s music. There, they shared their fears; Sniderman listened.

“Everybody sat there at some point,” Sniderman said. “The Guess Who were there when they couldn’t get a record made. Anne Murray sat there saying: ‘Sam, if this record doesn’t work, I’m going back to Nova Scotia to be a gym teacher.’”

Sniderman always gave his expert advice, and often money out of his own pocket, to help emerging Canadian artists catch their first big break.

“He was a mentor to literally hundreds of Canadian artists and musicians, and the Yonge Street record store and Sam’s presence there was the centre of the Canadian music industry’s universe for over three decades,” said Brian Robertson, a close family friend and chairman emeritus of the Canadian Recording Industry Association.

In 2002, his sons Bobby and Jason reopened the store after the bankruptcy, but the losses kept adding up. In 2007, they sold to Ryerson University. The building was levelled and will be replaced with a new student centre in years to come.

Sniderman’s achievements earned him the Order of Canada 1976. He was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997.

His family said a service will be held Tuesday and a memorial service will be held next month.

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