TORONTO – Sam Sniderman’s influence on Canadian’s burgeoning music industry will be felt for generations, long after the man and his legendary Sam the Record Man music store have gone, his grieving relatives and supporters said Monday.
The charismatic businessman who built his career on championing Canadian performers died peacefully in his sleep on Sunday in Toronto, his family said.
The 92-year-old held on to his trademark stubbornness and fierce independence — the very traits that helped propel his music empire — until the end, his son Jason said.
“He never really retired, he was always interested in what was going on,” he said in a phone interview.
“He believed in Canadian music because it was something that spoke to him from inside…Because his belief in Canadian music was so strong, he was tireless in how he pursued its success and I think that’s his true legacy.”
The Toronto-born entrepreneur played a key role in cementing the country’s artistic identity, efforts that led many to consider him the godfather of Canada’s music industry.
He pushed for then-controversial Canadian content broadcast regulations established in 1970 and helped organize the first Juno Awards to celebrate the country’s musical talent.
While always eager to shine a spotlight on his musical work, he kept a low profile in his philanthropic endeavours, toiling behind the scenes for “countless hours” to save the music building at the Canadian National Exhibition when it was slated to be torn down, his son said.
Sniderman also founded a music archive and musical manuscript library at the University of Toronto.
He went on to support cancer research at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, P.E.I., a province where he lived part of the year.
His influence was remembered Monday in Ottawa.
In offering condolences on behalf of the federal government, Heritage Minister James Moore said Sniderman left his mark through his “constant support of Canadian talent and concern for the preservation of our cultural heritage.”
Meanwhile, New Democrat Andrew Cash paid tribute in the House of Commons to the man he called “an iconoclast, pioneer and staunch believer in the greatness of Canadian music.”
“You went to Sam’s searching for clues — you went there to get close to and be part of an emerging, exciting Canadian music scene,” he said.
Known widely as Sam the Record Man, Sniderman and his brother Sid opened a small store on College Street in Toronto in 1937 and together they built a chain of Sam the Record Man stores that spanned the country.
Sniderman opened his flagship store on Toronto’s Yonge Street in 1959.
It grew into a haven for artists and music lovers of all stripes, building a particularly loyal customer base and a knowledgeable staff that could hold their own against any music fan that walked through the door.
The warehouse-like store was known for having the most extensive catalogue in the country.
Its walls were lined with gold records, artifacts and photographs of countless music greats touched by the family’s efforts to champion Canadian music, among them Randy Bachman, Burton Cummings, Gordon Lightfoot and Rush.
“Sam took great pride in being the best friend of Canadian musicians,” Rush frontman Geddy Lee said in a statement Monday.
“I remember the first time we were awarded a Canadian Gold Record; it was presented to us by Sam at a dinner arranged at Sam the Chinese Food Man restaurant,” he said, a reference to one of Sniderman’s other ventures.
“Sam truly helped change the way Canadians view homegrown talent.”
The iconic store with its huge flashing red neon record sign closed in 2007, seven years after Sniderman officially retired and handed over ownership to his sons Jason and Bobby.
It was a difficult time for Sniderman, who maintained a steady presence at the beloved family business, said Jason Sniderman.
“He was always really sad about it,” and struggled to come to terms with the sudden shift toward digital music, which ultimately led to the store’s collapse, he said.
The building was later sold to Ryerson University, which also claimed the store’s signature sign.
Ryerson’s president Sheldon Levy called Sam Sniderman “a wonderful friend and neighbour” to the school, one who “brought excitement and energy to Yonge Street” and built “a magnet for young people.”
Jason Sniderman said the store still has a franchised outpost in Belleville, Ont.
A major promoter of Canadian music, Sam Sniderman was a Member of the Order of Canada, an inductee of the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
He also received a Governor General award and honorary doctorates from Ryerson and the University of Prince Edward Island.
“Sam was the last of the great Canadian showmen that were able to establish themselves as household names purely through the force of their personality”, said Brian Robertson, a close family friend and Chairman Emeritus of the Canadian Recording Industry Association.
“He was a mentor to literally hundreds of Canadian artists and musicians and the Yonge Street record store and Sam’s presence there was the centre of the Canadian music industry’s universe for over three decades.”
Always energetic, Sniderman threw himself into his hobbies with the same vigour that fuelled his work, his son said.
An avid tennis player, he was “as aggressive on the court as he was in business,” and wasn’t above the odd trick shot, he said.
“That was how he let off steam,” Jason Sniderman said.
As his involvement with the business wound down, he channelled his energy into cooking and filling the fridges of his loved ones with home-cooked meals, his son said.
“He would spend all day cooking for me and my family and then bring it to the house … it was his way of sharing his love with all of us,” he said.
“He was an obsessive guy, you know. If he was going to do something, he would do it to the nth degree.”
Sniderman’s death sparked an outpouring of grief and nostalgia from legions of music lovers across the country.
Mike Wilkomirsky, 29, grew up in a suburban Toronto neighbourhood and spent much of his teen years browsing the racks of the city’s musical mecca.
When his fledgling band sought to bring its work to the masses, Sam’s was the only major retailer willing to carry their CD, said Wilkomirsky, who now works in a bank.
With Sniderman gone, “it’s like a nail in the coffin of (my) youth,” he said.
Karen Bowler, 42, remembered the monthly treks she and her father made to the downtown store from his home in the nearby city of Brampton.
“It was our big trip together,” said Bowler, who moved to Edmonton roughly 15 years ago. “It’s a childhood memory.”
Though she hadn’t been to the store since the early 1990s, she was sad when it closed. “It was the last original record store.”
Sniderman’s family said a service will be held Tuesday and a memorial service will be held next month.