Remembering Sam The Record Man (June 15, 1920—September 23, 2012)

Sam Sniderman, Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press photo

Sam Sniderman, a/k/a Sam The Record Man has died at age 92 in his hometown, and my hometown, Toronto.

If you’re from Toronto, of a certain age, you’ll recall how important his flagship store, at Yonge and Gould Street (north of Dundas), was to so many of us, when I was growing up back in Toronto. Those who know me in other towns I’ve lived have surely heard me speak (ad nauseam) about Sam’s and the impact it had on me. So many of my first vinyl purchases, back when there only was vinyl and no other format, were made at Sam The Record Man.

Photo by Adam Shax, used without permission, but thanks Adam!

Sam was a tireless promoter of “Canadian Content” back when we Canadians often needed reminding about the inherent value of our local talent, and Sam decorated his store (and later his chain outlets) with banners and markers to indicate  that a record was homegrown, everything from Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, to Stompin’ Tom Connors and Anne Murray

And of course Rush, whose “Spirit Of Radio” was used as the soundtrack to this photo show tribute to Sam’s that I found on YouTube:

Oh, then there was The Guess Who, one of my favourite Sam’s stories involves an ad Sam’s had placed in the Toronto Star announcing that you’d get a free Guess Who T-shirt, a white cotton number featuring artwork which depicted a Canadian “beaver” nickel emblazoned with “The Guess Who”, when you purchased “any Guess Who record”.

Dad took me down to get my free shirt. I was spending my own allowance money, so I could only get a 45 single of “Hand Me Down World”. We grabbed it from the singles racks and went to the check out. The cashier said she wouldn’t give me the shirt, because you had buy a whole album, but dad wasn’t having it. He got mad and started making a scene, insisted that “any record” could in fact include a single. This only made the cashier more determined to go full “High Fidelity” on this hothead, and she dug in her heels and refused to budge.

Then, as luck and fate would have it, Sam himself walked over. Having heard the commotion, he was hoping to tamp it down like a Vegas pit boss. When Sam looked at me, nearly crying, and my dad, who was at least making a coherent case that the ad in the Star had been misleading at best, Sam smiled widely reached over the counter and handed me the white cotton T-Shirt. The only size they had was Men’s Medium, which sat on me like an XXL in those days (sigh), but he’d done the right thing. Yes, Virginia, there really was a Santa Claus, and yes, Paul, there really was a Sam The Record Man. Good on his word, and eager to keep the customer happy, even a scrawny kid like me.

Lately, I’ve been doing a bit of storytelling, and workshopping some stories that will end up in a memoir style anthology of stories about how music has been like a thumbtack on the cork-board of my life.  I’m hoping to turn it out in the coming year. Anyway, one of these stories actually started here on this blog, then became a live oral thing, and is now a written up thing. That story is called “Ringo, Django and My Dad” and it concerns the time my late father and I drove downtown to Sam The Record Man, ostensibly so that I could buy The Beatles’ Abbey Road as a birthday present. But when we got down to the store, dad also took me upstairs to the Jazz section, where I had never been before. Here’s an excerpt from that story:

We parked and walked over to Sam The Record Man. I hope that in your lifetime you got to see one of these big, high ceilinged halls of record worship, because they are a dying (or dead) breed.  Sam’s was the Taj Mahal, a multi-storey funhouse of unbelievably deep selection. We found Abbey Road in the front racks, but instead of proceeding to the cash register, Dad had another idea. He wanted to go upstairs to the Jazz section, whatever that was.

I had never been upstairs, before. I didn’t even know Sam’s had a whole floor just for Jazz records. Come to think of it, I don’t think I really knew what Jazz was at that point.

The stairs creaked as we left the rock and roll floor and approached the great, jazzy beyond. Up there, the sounds became quieter; the tasteful honk of reedy saxophones punctuated the swishy sizzle of brushes on drums. Solemn single men, older men, flipped through the record bins with focused intensity, deep in the familiar search mode of the vinyl connoisseur. There was a man behind the counter, and Dad asked the man for something called Django Reinhardt. The man nodded approvingly then lead us to the appropriate section.

What was this magic name dad had uttered? Jango Rine Heart? Was that even a person? Dad told me that he’d recently been listening to the CBC and that they had played a song by Django’s Quintette Du Hot Club De France, and it had reminded him of the first time he’d heard this music, back when he’d been stationed in continental Europe during WWII.

He was excited now, he didn’t buy albums every day and up until now the only records I’d ever heard them play in the house were by Charles Aznavour or the Broadway cast of Camelot, starring Robert Goulet.

We headed to the cash register, both of us thrilled about our purchases, returned to the car, and sped home on the Parkway.”

I can also remember going to Sam’s with my good friends Michael Wojewoda and Dan Derbridge when I was a teenager and we’d buy a bunch of albums, which were heat-sealed into white plastic Sam’s bags, emblazoned with the phrase “Happy Shopping At Sam the Record Man”. After this, we’d go up to Dan’s  house to listen to it all. This was a big part of my development into the kind of music fan, and music writer, I am today.

Original Sam’s artwork by Kurt Swinghammer.

Another great moment at Sam’s happened in the early 90s. By now, the Indie record had become a viable option for Canadian bands, spurred locally by DIY bands like The Pursuit of Happiness and Barenaked Ladies, who had enjoyed retail success with non-label products. Sam’s, always a tireless champion for Canadian talent, had by now started an Indie rack and a chart to track and market these handmade homegrown releases. My old band, The Gravelberrys had been getting a lot of airplay on CFNY, CBC and college radio with our CD, Bowl Of Globes. The week or two (or maybe three) that Bowl Of Globes was  in the Top Ten Indies rack, I would go to the store sometimes twice a day and just stare at it. I’d made a real record, and it was on sale in a real record store. The store of my youth, the store of my dreams. I felt like I’d arrived.

So thank you Sam, for being a Record Man, and thanks for the hours and hours of happy shopping.

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7 Responses to “Remembering Sam The Record Man (June 15, 1920—September 23, 2012)”

  1. Paul, great job eulogizing another Canadian legend. Look forward to reading YOUR story someday.

  2. i loved shopping at Sam’s when i was in Toronto a lot during the ’80s, when we all took it for granted that great record stores would be with us always. and i remember meeting sam himself once at a friend’s house—the guy was a force of nature, filled with vibrant energy, a guy who loved his life and what he had built. we were so lucky to live in that era, when that fantastic variety was available in giant emporiums (and of course charming little indie stores), and cheap. my sam’s was a place called Sound Town in Dallas in the early ’70s, where the cutout bin yielded all kinds of treasures including Runt and the Ballad of Todd Rundgren ($1.99 apiece), which started me on the lifelong adventure of following that artist.

    thanks, paul—a lovely tribute. look forward to seeing… the *rest* of thee story. <3

  3. Great tribute Paul to one of Canada’s cultural Icons. Without Sam Sniderman, and Sam The Record Man, our musical heritage would still emanate out of Nashville or New York. My growing-up-years would have dried out in the desert of Toronto-The-Good. I spent countless Saturday mornings taking the bus to Yonge St, another bus to Eglinton Station, the subway down to Dundas and the running-walk up to Sam’s (yes, I sometimes felt like a traitor and went into A&As). He was nearly always there.

    It was the most wonderful record store in the world! I can’t remember life without Sam.

  4. Duncan Ross Says:

    Thanks for this Paul. You nailed it. The creaking stairs, the banner’s, the bags.. I think everyone who entered those doors has memories that will last a lifetime. I remember sleeping out Yonge Street in front of the store to buy tickets for the “first” Who farewell tour.

  5. Hey, thanks for writting this, like you Sam’s was such a part of my life, from the first time my big brother took me back in 73, to when I worked with bands in the 80s and dropped in to see their efforts racked…I took my kids to see the sign when it was lit for Nuit Blanche a few years ago…Yonge St. was magic for me and Sam’s was such a big part…thx

  6. corinne osko Says:

    hi paul i’ll remember sam the record man always my grandad took me to sam’s when i was a little girl to purchase chipmunk lps my mom drove mr sniderman to the subway once back in 1970? i think it was , i was also there the last day the store was open, i took photos of the sign when it was lit up for one last time during the nuit blance event in 2007 i saw colin james, 54-40, and eric johnson perform there a lot of memories i still own a copy of the guess who golden goodies lp i bought there as well, rip mr sniderman you said you did it!!!

  7. […] late great Sam Sniderman, who founded what was at one time Toronto’s greatest record store Sam The Record Man. My father had noticed language in their newspaper ad that said that I could get a free Guess Who […]

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