Sam “the Record Man” Sniderman: He Said It, He Did It

Originally published on Torontoist on September 24, 2012.

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Globe and Mail, August 21, 1971.

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.

View of Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street

View of Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street, June 23, 1971. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 3, Item 25

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.

Capital works - Yonge Street and Gould Street. - [between 1977 and 1998]

The Gould Street side of Sam’s, before the chess tables went in, early 1980s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 26.

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.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL 

The day after this piece was originally published, that week’s “Vintage Toronto Ads” column spotlighted Sam’s.

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Toronto Star, December 10, 1948 (left); Toronto Star, December 19, 1952 (right).

Besides the iconic presence Sam the Record Man had on Yonge Street, it was a long-standing advertiser in Toronto’s newspapers. Starting in the 1940s as Sniderman’s Music Hall, the record retailer lured in music lovers with sales on the latest releases and back-catalogue items.

Many of the early ads we found highlighted Sam’s selection of British and foreign-language albums, capturing a city starting its transformation from a staunchly loyal outpost of the British Empire to today’s multicultural landscape. Parlophone Records would aid Sam’s sales from the 1960s onwards…or their major mop-topped act (who was released on an associated EMI label in North America) would.

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Toronto Star, November 15, 1957.

Two major changes occurred to the store’s ads during the fall of 1957. The “Sam the Record Man” name appears to have been adopted at this time, though die-hard customers had been using it for a while. Also taking shape was the ad format Sam’s used for the next half-century, filled with pictures of the week’s major sale items.

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Toronto Star, November 15, 1957.

There was only so much space to show the records, so lists of other specials were included. The store also touted its easy access from the College streetcar.

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Toronto Star, July 20, 1961.

Before Sam’s occupied its best-known location at 347 Yonge Street in 1961, the building housed a furniture store. While Sam’s operated out of a temporary location further south at 219 Yonge, A.R. Collis held a “selling out sale.” Fifty years would pass before the site witnessed another store closing blowout.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Little Criminal Mind of Randy Newman

Originally published on Torontoist on June 19, 2012.

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Rolling Stone, November 3, 1977.

As he stood on a Los Angeles freeway overpass having his picture taken for the cover of Little Criminals, did Randy Newman suspect that he would unleash what proved to be his most popular album with the public? Or does his look suggest he wanted the photo session to wrap up?

Shortly before the album was released in October 1977, Newman performed at Massey Hall. He told the Star that he hadn’t done much in the three-year interval since his last album, Good Old Boys, other than play with his kids at home in L.A. He claimed he was lazy, declaring he had rejected numerous offers to write Broadway musicals because he lacked the discipline to do so. Ironically, in light of his later career, he also turned down work on film soundtracks—“Movie music isn’t up to much lately; it doesn’t do anything for film.” Perhaps jaded Academy Award voters remembered that quote when they denied Newman an Oscar 15 times in a row.

The Globe and Mail’s Paul McGrath thought Newman looked “vibrant and healthy” when he took the stage on October 9, 1977. McGrath enjoyed the intelligence of Newman’s lyrics, but thought his vocals suited personal songs better than political ones, as the singer/songwriter penned “heartbreakingly beautiful love songs” that “can deal honestly with deep human emotion without the slightest bit of trivializing.” The Star’s Alan Guettel felt that Newman presented the same style of concert he had offered up the previous half-decade: “he sits at the piano, throws out a few asides about how sick he must be, and runs through about 30 songs. Thank you and good night.” Guettel also noted that “his repertoire of simple put-down ditties, the songs his cult fans instantly recognized…that evoke a genius who artfully portrays slices of North American life that we all sense are too irrational to take on standing up.”

Based on the success soon after of “Short People,” more than Newman’s devoted fans appreciated that genius.

Additional material from the October 10, 1977 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the October 8, 1977 and October 10, 1977 editions of the Toronto Star.

Building Storeys and Mapping Our Music

For a variety of reasons, ranging from rights to use certain images to not feeling like wrestling with the format originally used to post the material, I am not republishing the “Building Storeys” and “Mapping Our Music” series I wrote for Torontoist in 2012. Instead, check out the original posts listed below:

Building Storeys

A series of posts tied into a Heritage Toronto photography exhibit shown at Steam Whistle Brewing in May 2012.

Rail Bridges (April 26, 2012)
The Trillium (May 3, 2012)
Subways (May 11, 2012)
TTC Yards (May 17, 2012)

Mapping Our Music

A series of maps illustrated by Chloe Cushman which depicted “the venues, schools, record labels, stores, and other landmarks that created the sound of our city and shaped its music history.”

Before 1960 (May 9, 2012)
The 1960s (June 13, 2012)
The 1970s (July 19, 2012)
The 1980s (August 21, 2012)
The 1990s (September 19, 2012)

Dial 1050 CHUM for Dick Clark

Originally published on Torontoist on April 19, 2012.

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CHUM Chart, June 10, 1963.

During a May 1963 interview with the Star, while on trip to Toronto to finalize plans for a weeknight radio show on CHUM, Dick Clark smiled when the reporter complimented his youthful appearance. “I must be America’s oldest teenager,” the host of American Bandstand joked. For Clark, who passed away yesterday, it was a line that stuck to him throughout his career.

Clark’s production company decided to capitalize on that appeal by offering a radio show to stations across North America in early 1963. The concept: to create the illusion that Clark was hosting a live show, tapes of song introductions and minor banter would be delivered to participating stations, where a local DJ would interact with the recordings as if Clark shared the same booth. When CHUM received a copy of the demo reel, station owner Allan Slaight, promo director Allen Farrell, and production man Claude Deschamps took a listen and determined that while Clark sounded good, the overall effect was amateurish. Deschamps pestered Clark’s company to provide more personalized bits—asides, personal stories about the artists, and more “interaction” with co-host Dave Johnson. His persistence worked, though we wonder if it didn’t hurt that Clark’s second wife Loretta, who he married the year before, was a Toronto native.

To reinforce the illusion of a live program, Clark was required to tape the time for every single minute of the two-hour show, which was scheduled to run at 7 p.m Monday to Friday. He reportedly never turned down requests to record bits referring to other CHUM personalities and promotions, or Toronto events in general. Clark was so impressed with the station’s editing that he offered Deschamps a production job, but bureaucratic and immigration problems scuttled that idea.

The first show to air didn’t require elaborate editing, as it actually was recorded live in Toronto. On May 27, 1963 Clark and Johnson, along with other CHUM jocks, broadcast from the Terrace roller rink on Mutual Street. The evening was like a live episode of American Bandstand, complete with signing-in ritual for artists like Freddie Cannon and Ronnie Hawkins. After the show, Clark headed to Slaight’s home, where a tape of the show was available. With a huge grin, Clark listened to the intro over and over again, noting it was “Just like the old days, only bigger. Let’s hear it again!”

While the canned Clark remained on CHUM for a year, he returned to Toronto in person with his “Parade of Stars” package tour for a July 1963 date at Maple Leaf Gardens. “There’s no question that this handsome emcee has the measure of his audience,” noted Globe and Mail reviewer Ralph Hicklin. As for the demographic of that audience, “America’s oldest teenager” thought they got a bad rap. “I’m sick of hearing teenagers slammed,” Clark told the Star. “They are much more mature and world-minded than my generation was. Look at the postwar mess we handed them. I feel very confident about our future, because most of today’s teenagers will grow up to be very serious, competent adults.”

Additional material from The CHUM Story by Allen Farrell (Toronto: Stoddart, 2001), the July 20, 1963 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the May 3, 1963 edition of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Most Outrageous Mothers of Them All

Originally published on Torontoist on February 7, 2012.

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 Rolling Stone, March 15, 1973.

“Outrageous” was one of many terms applied to Frank Zappa during his musical career. One album, he’d be in a smutty satirical mode, the next was full of serious compositions. When he and the latest incarnation of the Mothers of Invention arrived in May 1973, Zappa was on the cusp of what proved to be his most commercially rewarding period, when the naughtier aspects of his music caught the public’s ear.

Zappa had resumed live performances in September 1972 following almost a year spent recovering from injuries sustained after an irate audience member pushed him off the stage during a concert in England. Among the lingering effects that Toronto audiences would have noticed: deeper vocals by Zappa, courtesy of a crushed larynx that dropped his voice by a third.

“Jazz and rock met head to head at Maple Leaf Gardens Friday night and slugged it out, amplifier to amplifier, for three and a half hours,” noted the Star’s Peter Goddard in his review of the concert, at which Zappa shared head billing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Around 14,000 people showed up to see two acts that Goddard felt were in peak form. “The Mothers of Invention teased you with a whirling series of brisk, bright ideas that required everyone to be constantly alert to what was to happen next,” Goddard wrote. “Zappa…utilized each member of his band to produce something only he could fully understand. In this sense Zappa may be to rock what Duke Ellington is to jazz—the real instrument for both of them is the band they are currently leading.” Local content was provided by opening act the Good Brothers, who despite seeming out of place with their blend of country and folk, played with “such skill and obvious affection, that even after the other two bands had finished with their adventurous electric music, the Good Brothers’ music could be remembered.”

This incarnation of the Mothers would back Zappa on the album Over-Nite Sensation, which was released shortly before his return to Toronto for a pair of sold-out shows at Massey Hall in November 1973. By that point, local radio stations were playing his music, even if it meant exiling songs like “Dirty Love” to after the midnight hour.

Additional material from the May 7, 1973 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Here is Goddard’s review, from the May 7, 1973 Star.

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ts 73-05-07 zappa review 2

“A Voice That Can Scale Mountains”

Originally published on Torontoist on February 13, 2012.

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Toronto Sun, August 17, 1986.

“Whitney Houston a stunning singer who’s going places” read a headline on the front page of the Star’s entertainment section on April 24, 1985. The prediction proved true, even if some of the singer’s fans wished there were a few places Houston didn’t go—deep into drug addiction, for instance, before her death on Saturday. But long before erratic behaviour caused concern, Houston’s early live performances in Toronto left audiences and critics raving about her singing talent in ways akin to the recent New York Times appraisal of her gifts: “radiant, perspective altering, impossible to touch.”

In town for a 48-hour whirlwind of publicity interviews to promote her eponymous first album, Houston made her Toronto debut in front of music-industry reps and reporters at the Club Bluenote at 128 Pears Avenue. Backed by recorded tracks and dressed in a fringed pink gown, Houston performed a half-dozen songs that, according to the Star’s Greg Quill, showcased a singer “experienced beyond her years.” A headline in the Globe and Mail declared that Houston possessed “a voice that can scale mountains.”

Houston returned to Toronto in August 1986 as part of a musical line-up at the CNE—one that also included Huey Lewis and the News, the Psychedelic Furs, Stevie Nicks, and Van Halen. As tickets sold out, fans entered contests, such as the Sun’s “Wild About Whitney,” to win seats. (Ten lucky winners saw the show.) When the Sun’s Bob Thompson asked Houston about the success of her first album, she said, “It’s very giddy and sometimes embarrassing to be famous. It’s to be expected, I guess, but I’m still not aware of the effect. I mean people tell me ‘You’ve started something,’ ‘People are looking like you’ and this and that. But I can’t imagine anyone wanting to look like me.” She indicated that she learned from her bad experiences, but when Thompson pressed her to specify, she responded, “I don’t know. I guess I haven’t had any.”

By contrast, the Star’s Peter Goddard was drawn to Houston’s beauty:

She has gorgeous features that aren’t idiosyncratic in any way and don’t “type” her. She can look great in almost any situation—even in a Coca Cola television commercial designed to have her out-stomp the greatest stomper going, Tina Turner. Houston has full lips, slightly hooded eyes and a yards-wide smile of blistering white teeth. Yet there’s an athleticism to this sensuality: her body is lithe, not lean. It’s a figure meant to be photographed.

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Toronto Sun, August 10, 1986.

According to the newspaper reviews, the 25,000 people at the CNE Grandstand on August 22, 1986, witnessed a flawless performance. From the moment she walked onstage to the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” she captured the audience’s attention with, as the Sun’s Liz Braun noted, “an unmistakable generosity of spirit.… What Houston has is total appeal. What she does is perform sublimely, and she makes it all look as easy as buttering toast.” The Star’s Greg Quill found that her performance grew stronger as the night wore on, especially during the closing numbers “Didn’t We Almost Have it All” and “Greatest Love of All.” “What remained,” Quill wrote, “after the last, long note had rung out across the stadium, was the memory of one of the strongest, most pure and most assured voices in pop.”

Houston returned for another packed CNE show in 1987, but she cancelled the show scheduled for the 1991 edition of the fair due to a sore throat—or so it was claimed. Inside sources told the Star that ticket sales were sluggish in Toronto and other Canadian stops on her tour—only 11,000 seats were sold here—so the shows were dropped.

In light of the directions in which Houston’s career and life went, the most heartbreaking words we found came from Quill’s review of the 1986 show. “Houston is far from her greatest achievements. Imagining how great she’ll be 20 years from now is almost impossible, given the wisdom and grace she displayed last night.”

Additional material from the April 24, 1985, edition of the Globe and Mail; the April 24, 1985, August 21, 1986, August 23, 1986, and August 21, 1991, editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 10, 1986, August 17, 1986, and August 24, 1986, editions of the Toronto Sun.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Comes a Time When Rust Never Sleeps

Originally published on Torontoist on December 13, 2011

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Rolling Stone, October 5, 1978.

Though the visuals in today’s ad refer to Neil Young’s album Comes a Time, the set list during his performance at Maple Leaf Gardens on October 1, 1978, barely touched on that record—only three of the 20 songs that night appeared on the country-flavoured collection. Instead, as the Star’s Peter Goddard put it, Young’s performance was “firmly fixed in the present” as fans experienced a preview of one of the artist’s most influential albums, Rust Never Sleeps.

The Globe and Mail’s Katherine Gilday described Young’s performance as highly theatrical, “right from the symbolic props that were propelled from various directions onto the stage, down to a stage crew reminiscent of those strange berobed creatures from Star Wars who took an ongoing role in all the proceedings.” She felt that it was “less the theatrical gimmickry than the recreation of powerful past emotions through an imaginatively structured program that provided the true drama of the evening.”

The evening’s set list:
Sugar Mountain
I Am a Child
Comes a Time
Already One
After The Gold Rush
Thrasher
My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)
When You Dance I Can Really Love
The Loner
Welfare Mothers
Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown
The Needle And The Damage Done
Lotta Love
Sedan Delivery
Powderfinger
Cortez The Killer
Cinnamon Girl
Like A Hurricane
Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)
Tonight’s The Night