Opinion

Sam the Record Man remembered

We were sad to learn today that Canadian icon Sam the Record Man has died. The following article first appeared in June of 2011, celebrating Sam Sniderman’s ninety-first birthday. We repost it today with our condolences to Sam’s family, and much respect for a long life well lived.

I was 10 in 1967 when the Rolling Stones released Satanic Majesties Request and I don’t know how he did it, but Sam had it on the wall for a buck ninety.

It wasn’t the concept or the content I was drawn by.  And while I knew I should, I didn’t really know much about the Stones. Heck, I was listening to the Monkees, Tommy James and a little bit of the Turtles. But the allure of that funky 3D cover gave me the courage to ask one of Sam’s staff  to bring it down for me.

On a nice day it was hard to know who to ask because the guys that worked there looked just like the guys that shopped there: bell-bottomed jeans and a t-shirt or whatever was within an arms length of whatever bed one rolled out of that morning. But there was always one guy leaning against the bins who was different: a little older, a lot wiser and clenching the smoldering remnants of  a big honk’n cigar. I took the Stones record to Sam and asked him how much it was, as if “Sam’s $1.90 Daze” wasn’t obvious.

I just wanted an excuse to talk to him. He asked me how much I had. 65 cents wasn’t enough, but without missing a beat he had one of the guys in t-shirts hermetically seal the LP in one of those classic plastic bags and handed it to me with a broad smile he told me to “Enjoy it, son”.

My mother goes into denial when I remind her that by the time I was 10, I’d been making the trip to 347 Yonge Street on my own for three years. My parents and I had a clear agreement on how long I would be and the route those pilgrimages would take: Eglinton East bus from the then Toronto suburb of Leaside, transfer to the southbound subway (easy, because in those days it didn’t go north), get off at Queen and catch the shuttle that ran the strip between the two humongous Eaton’s stores at Queen and College streets. The driver would let you off half-way, right at Sam’s front door if you asked him nicely.

Each of those trips became a ritual:

  • grab a handful of Sam’s post cards just inside the front door where they would mail them for you free to anywhere in the world
  • scan the $1.90 wall for the best deals
  • hang out in the back 45’s department to check out the latest CHUM chart
  • check out the numerous b&w promo pics and autographs on the wall, making it a little game to decipher who’s who
  • talk to Sam! If I didn’t have a more legit excuse, my back-up was to ask for his autograph on one of those free postcards
  • repeat steps 2 + 3 next door at A&A
  • drop a few nickels into the pinball machines over at Fun Land
  • head across the road to Papaya Hut for a coconut milk and a hot dog

I attribute much of my fascination and career in the business of music and entertainment to the influence of Sam Sniderman. To the last days of 347 Yonge Street, every single time I set foot in that store I felt excitement and reverence for where I was.

I stood in line for hours to buy The Beatles Hey Jude album for a penny the day Sam opened a store in my hometown of Barrie. When I worked at Warner Music in Montreal, I spend the better part of two days a week to ensure our “product” was getting the best possible visibility in Sam’s 13 Quebec stores.

Even with a catalogue of over 100 titles and as a massive influence on the careers of R&R’s greatest, John Lee Hooker had never had a gold record, anywhere. When I was at A&M, we made it our mission to deliver his first with The Healer. We were able so because Sam agreed to a massive promotion we ran across the chain on Boxing Day that he supported by buying the last 10,000 units of the album to get it to gold. I could go on all day with anecdotes and memories.

To me, Sam the Record Man was Mecca as a destination and role model as a man.  Today is Sam Sniderman’s 91st birthday. Like the kid I was way back then, I still just want to talk to him – to tell him what his accomplishments have meant to me, and wish him a happy day.

Steve McNie’s career in the entertainment business includes managing Sharon, Lois and Bram, and working with Warner Records, A&M, CBC and CTV. He runs the Corktown Ukulele Jam, and plays with the Corktown Chamber Orchestra and The McFlies.

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9 comments

  1. avatar
    David Newland 15 June, 2011 at 12:23

    Great item Steve – Sam’s was such a destination for so many of us, and not just in Toronto.

    One of my prize possessions is the last copy of my independent cassette, released in Halifax in 1995.

    It’s got a Sam’s sticker on it because Sam’s would sell something you made yourself in their front window. What a place!

  2. avatar
    Beverlie Robertson 15 June, 2011 at 13:12

    I remember way back to the 40s when Sam used to bring in rhumba & samba records for my mother during the war years & after. When we first went there, he came over to talk to the Spanish lady & her little girl. From then on, Sam made the effort to find records by Noro Morales & other bands from Cuba & Latin America. When my dad came back from the war, Sam had a chat with him & found that he loved traditional Dixie Land jazz…my dad could always find jazz & blues from New Orleans or wherever. Later, when I was a member of the Chanteclairs in the 60s, Sam carried our album. Happy Birthday Sam & thanks for the music!

  3. avatar
    Scott Merrifield 15 June, 2011 at 16:53

    Sam has lots of admirers here in Northern Ontario. I rarely made a trip to Toronto without the obligatory visit to Sam’s, even after he opened a store here. Happy Birthday Sam, and many more!

  4. avatar
    Denise 16 June, 2011 at 19:49

    This brought me to tears! I share similar memories! I miss Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street! It should have been saved as a landmark! Sam was the best! Happy Birthday Sam and thanks for the great memories (you too Steve!)!!!

  5. avatar
    Lesley Marie 17 June, 2011 at 08:47

    Growing up, this small town girl came into the city once a year and stayed downtown at the Delta Chelsea. It was a Christmas gift from Santa to the family- a night in the city, and a show.
    One of the highlights for me was walking (by myself!!! *gasp*) from the hotel to Sams both days we were in town. I too was given an allotted time frame- and my mom’s swatch. I’d trot down the street with the money I’d saved, excited to bring home new music. The time would pass too quickly.

    Last week I was in the city for an appointment, I ended up walking up Younge St for awhile waiting for someone. Things on the street have changed so much in the 20 years since our family trips… it wasn’t until I passed the Chelsea’s doors that I even realized what part of town I was in… My childhood landmarks were missing. I missed Sams.

  6. avatar
    Barbara Hill 16 August, 2012 at 20:28

    I was Executive Assistant to Sam in the Roblan warehouse around the corner on Church, except on Boxing Day, when I worked in the store. I was there from 82 until 86. I have such fond memories of Sam, Jason, well the whole family. It was one of the best jobs of my life, and I carry great admiration for Sam in my heart.

  7. avatar
    Alexander Nathan 24 September, 2012 at 10:19

    I remember being taken into the store as a kid, and finding it pretty magical. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Sam and his wife Janet on a few occasions and they were both wonderful, kind and generous people. A huge loss.

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