Sam Sniderman and the forging of the Canadian music scene

Sam Sniderman and Sam the Record Man are major characters in the story of the development of the Canadian music scene and helped cement Yonge Street as a national hub.

Writer Peter Goddard has played on, walked on, loved on and written about Yonge Street his entire life. He was one of the last journalists to have spoken to Sam before he passed away in 2012.

 

By Peter Goddard

 Table of contents

Sid Sniderman (left) and Sam Sniderman inside the Sam the Record Man store in 1969. Harold Barkley, GetStock.com/Toronto Star

I: YONGE & RESTLESS

 

When Sam the Record Man opened in 1961 at 347 Yonge St., the city was reinventing itself – just as was Sam himself – and Yonge Street was at the heart of each transformation.

 

In moving the family music business from College Street to that Yonge Street location – with a brief stop at 291 Yonge in 1959 in between – Sam Sniderman and brother Sidney knew they were moving into the heartland of old, WASP Toronto about which the phrase, “Toronto the good” felt more like a curse, where the sound of church bells might still drown out the sound of traffic’s lazy flow and where Sunday’s monotony made the average working stiff welcome Mondays with open arms.

 

Eaton’s and Simpsons were across the street, Heintzman Pianos a short walk away and Massey Hall was right around the corner. The Snidermans – Sid the elder by 13 years – also knew they were moving to the most newly energized strip of real estate in Canada, a blaze of neon from top to bottom.

 

The new store’s opening, which typically came with a blast of Sam-crafted publicity, happened during a curious lull in the city’s atmosphere, as if it was caught holding its breath, but not sure for what. Nathan Phillips, the city’s first Jewish mayor, was hardly deeply conservative. Construction on the new city hall had begun yet Toronto’s modernist cityscape was yet to take shape. Bars closed Sundays as they would for one more year, although alternative intoxicants might be found in the city’s newly burgeoning Yorkville bohemia with such recently opened clubs as the Purple Onion, the Half Beat and the 71 Coffee House. The Maple Leafs were doing okay, but not great. The CHUM radio charts were missing vintage Elvis Presley, who was otherwise preoccupied becoming a movie star on the set of Blue Hawaii, so the world had to make do with the likes of Jim Reeves, Conway Twitty, Percy Faith and Anita Bryant singing Do-Re-Mi. Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins had only just begun to rule over the Strip when Sam’s neon sign – actually Sid’s doing – brashly announced the new store’s address at 347 Yonge St.

 

The Snidermans felt their timing was right. The city was thriving through the industry of a generation of brash new entrepreneurs, some from immigrant families. Johnny Lombardi, the Sniderman’s neighbour from the College Street days, was busy promoting concerts for newly arrived Italians. Ed Mirvish was buying up everything he could on Markham Street and turning it into “Mirvish Village.” Mel Lastman’s Bad Boy furniture chain was brashly making itself noticed across the city. And they all sold what they sold via the radio as the record industry was being transformed by the unlikely marriage of ghetto blues and hillbilly white honky tonk. Popular music was the soundtrack of a new city culture.

 

There was nothing neat or nice about it. Honest Ed hosted turkey giveaways. Mel Lastman was “nooooobody’s” equal. And the new Sam the Record Man was sure not the Eaton’s record corner where Perry Como was completely at home. Sam the Record Man was a bazaar: noisy, open late, never neat and always expanding. Sam’s flaunted closing statutes in the “city of churches” by staying open Sunday. The top two of its three floors were crammed with recordings available nowhere else except at Sam’s and, in some cases, the remote village in Bulgaria where they were recorded. This was also definitely not A&A Records next door. Sam’s was the city’s first multicultural showplace, the harbinger of a vast ethnic mash-up that would later define Toronto at its best.

 

Sam famously liked music.

 

“He even showed up at my shows,” Anne Murray remembers.

 

But real estate is also at the heart of the Sam the Record Man story starting with its extensive cross-country franchise operations which totalled some 137 stores by the mid-80s. Sid loved real estate, even buying an 80-acre farm for the family, but loved what he could do with it even more. Sam filled the space by being that space. (We’re reminded of French surrealist writer Noël Arnaud’s phrase, “Je suis l’espace ou je suis” - I am the space where I am.)

 

What Sam loved even more than anything else, however, was the store where music was sold.

 

Eventually, Sam’s story was that of the music industry, Canadian and American, and his clout was a reflection of the power he had over us: our sense of a personal connection to Sam was likely nurtured by that same feeling we had about the music we loved. Sam was pop music as much as Gordon Lightfoot or the Beatles, bigger than life yet as privately understood as a secret.

 

“For me, one of the great things,” says Sam’s son Jason Sniderman, “was leaving Massey Hall after a concert and going to my father’s store to buy records. It was an amazing thing to do.”

 

That’s where the story begins.