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Sam the Record Man, businessman and defender of Canadian music, dead at 92

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Samuel Sniderman, known by anyone of a certain age in Toronto as Sam the Record Man, died yesterday at the age of 92.

Although he retired in 2000 and his flagship store on Yonge St adorned by two spinning neon discs over the main entrance closed five years ago, thousands of music lovers in Toronto still fondly remember the hours spent on the sprawling store’s badly worn linoleum, perusing new releases — be they pop, rock, jazz or classical.

Sniderman was not only a savvy businessman, he was a staunch supporter of local and Canadian talent — something that earned him an induction to the Order of Canada in 1976.

He was also a great musical philanthropist, leaving a collection of 180,000 recordings — the country’s largest — to the University of Toronto. The Sniderman Recordings Collection didn’t just include samples from the store’s stock, but rare and valuable gramophone records and Edison wax cylinders going back to the turn of the 20th century.

Now that the CBC is eliminating its record libraries, the Sniderman Collection will prove to be all the more significant as a source of archival information on 20th century Canadian recorded music.

At one point after Roy Thomson Hall opened 30 years ago and the organization’s board of governors didn’t know what to do with Massey Hall, Sniderman offered to take over the building and its programming — a monumental task that he quickly realised was well beyond his means. But the gesture spoke to his deep love of his native city and the artists that could grace the storied concert hall’s stage.

Sniderman was 17 when he suggested to his brother Sidney in 1937 that the family’s College St business, Sniderman Radio Sales and Service, should be selling records. The record-store business grew to the point that Sam was able to open the big store at the corner of Yonge and Gould Sts in 1961.

Eight years later, Sniderman, with his sons Robert and Jason, set up a holding company to franchise the Sam the Record Man brand into a national chain that, at its peak in the 1980s  numbered 137 stores, accounting for nearly a fifth of all LP and audiocassette sales in Canada.

Mirroring the fate of something-for-everyone record stores everywhere, the chain didn’t survive into the 21st century. Sniderman, ever the realist, supported Ryerson University’s plan to redevelop the empty red-brick and cinderblock mess at the corner of Yonge and Gould Sts into a student-centred gateway to its campus — marked by a restored neon sign with the two spinning discs.

At the moment, the site still awaits its new building.

There is hardly a music organization in Canada that hasn’t in one way or another benefited from Sniderman’s enthusiasm, generosity and input. In Toronto, he led an effort to preserve and restore the Music Building at the Exhibition grounds, and sat on the CNE’s programming committee for its legendary grandstand concert series in the late-1970s. He was active in the East Coast Music Association, the Canadian Association of Recording Artists, and was a regular contributor to reviews of federal cultural policy.

There are also dozens of Canadian artists who owe thanks to Sniderman for helpful hints, a promotional push and a sympathetic ear.

In short, Sniderman was the ideal of the savvy entrepreneur who cared deeply about what he sold — and cared just as much about his city, his country and its culture. People like that don’t come along every day.

ADDENDUM: I received this wonderful tribute from Toronto guitarist Bernard Farley.

The  school he is referring to is the Dixon Hall Music School, which reaches out to children who would otherwise not be able to afford music lessons. Farley was director of the school in the 1990s:

“I was sad when I heard Sam died today but I smiled too at the memories of what a wonderful guy he’d been to the children at our little music school.  He always looked a little comical whenever he walked into my office, weighed down with armloads of CD’s for our Listening Library — and he always looked so happy to do it.  There are so many more examples of ways in which Sam was generous and selfless with his time, his money, and his influence but what you wrote is fine.  He was indeed a true Mensch and, I would add, a true friend — someone who wanted to help simply because he could see a need.  I feel very lucky to have known him and to have seen his examples of kindness and friendship. I’ll miss him and remember him well.”

John Terauds

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