"During the unprecedented canonization of all types of pop music that occurred during the CD boom of the 1980s and '90s, Gary Stewart was the single most important individual,” says S-Curve Records founder Steve Greenberg. “Through his work at Rhino, he organized our knowledge and provided context for genres as diverse as doo-wop and punk, girl groups and '50s rock. What Lenny Kaye [who started the Nuggets series] was to garage rock, Gary Stewart was to a hundred different musical styles. In his Have a Nice Day series, he rescued the entire genre of AM Radio pure pop singles from the historical dustbin, making the music available for the first time in many years, while shaping our understanding of why that music was, in fact, important. Because of Gary Stewart, we collectively know more about a wide variety of musical eras and styles and were exposed to a lot of great music that had previously been ignored or forgotten. The music community owes him a great debt.”
Stewart, a massive Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen fan, was also a co-founder with David Gorman of Trunkworthy, a website evangelizing “underappreciated yet overachieving music, movies, and television," as the description phrased it.
The website, which Stewart left a few years ago, took its name from Stewart’s unabashed zeal to turn people on to great music, movie and television. So devoted was he to that endeavor that he carried around dozens of CDs and DVDs in his Prius trunk, always ready and willing to hand out complete TV series and music box sets to friends (and often strangers he’d just met) for free.
“The idea of turning people onto music or TV shows, it relates back to Rhino when we did the compilations,” says Rhino co-founder Harold Bronson. “It wasn’t just, ‘Here’s the hits that you know, so buy it for that.’ It was, ‘Here’s some really great music that you might not have heard and we’re including that with the hits.’ That continued to a different level with the trunk.” Stewart attended concerts several nights per week, always buying his tickets instead of taking industry comps in order to support artists. For artists he felt especially passionate about, he would often buy 20 or more tickets and invite friends to come for free so they could share in the sense of discovery.
A native Los Angeleno, a 17-year old Stewart begin riding his bicycle to Rhino Records retail store in Westwood in 1974, shortly a year after it opened. “He wandered in our store and never left,” says Rhino co-founder Richard Foos. “He’d found his home because we were a bunch of crazed record nerds.” A few years later, after Foos and Bronson started the record label (which eventually sold to Time Warner in 1998) and Stewart graduated from college, he managed the store before becoming head of sales for the label. He quickly moved to A&R, but continued to work at the record store for years afterwards.
“We had him oversee the compilation of every album we ever did after the first year or so,” says Foos. “If he was compiling a record, he would always make sure -- whether it was a 20-song compilation or a box set -- it was the definitive songs of that genre. He would sometimes have five or six friends or experts come over and they would have screaming sessions on what tracks could or could not go on. He and his team would go through hundreds and hundreds and thousands of songs and whittle it down to where it was a great listening experience. [In addition to] all the hits, he’d always make sure there were undiscovered gems.”
As passionate as he was about music, Stewart was also a committed philanthropist. At Rhino, he was the impetus for a volunteer program whereby employees who donated 18 hours of time per year would get off the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day with pay. "He changed what Rhino was, not only as a compilation company, but with the idea of social responsibility and doing the right thing," says former Rhino Entertainment exec vp Bob Emmer, who is now co-founder and co-CEO at Shout! Factory. "When we started Shout! Factory Records 16 years ago, we brought the program with us. It was totally a case of passing it on. Gary was so influential."
"Gary was a really, really good person. He cared passionately and equally about music and social change, and loved to share his knowledge and excitement about both topics," says Concord CEO Scott Pascucci. "I met Gary in 2001 when I was put in charge of Rhino. I was received with suspicion and fear by many at the company, but Gary (and Richard Foos) chose to engage and give me a chance. He loved that company and all of its people and artists, and made me see that its soul was comprised of equal parts musical passion and community activism and helped me set the right course for my time there. And he led by example. He volunteered his time, he served on the boards of multiple L.A. groups committed to social change, he wrote a lot of checks -- and he motivated many of us to do the same. He changed my life in profound ways, and he made the world a better place. We will all miss him.”
Rhino president Mark Pinkus said in a statement, "Gary Stewart was a great man and a dear friend. He was truly the architect and guiding spirit of Rhino. He defined what it meant to be a catalog label... not only for Rhino, but for the entire industry. He was not only the creative backbone of Rhino, but he also set the standard for our social consciousness. If you have ever enjoyed a rare demo or B-side that you never knew existed, or marveled at holding a beautiful boxed set from one of your favorite artists, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Gary Stewart."
David Dorn, who worked with Stewart at both Rhino and Apple, added, "[Gary] was smart, funny, challenging and passonate. He was an incredibly generous person who truly cared about making a difference in everything he did, whether that was in his work in music or his work in the community. Quality really mattered to Gary. It wasn't good enough to just do something; it had to be done the right way wiht the right intent."
At various times, Stewart served on the boards of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the Community Coalition, Liberty Hill Foundation and Social Venture Network. He was a donor, fundraiser and activist on social justice issues and progressive candidates and initiatives, advocating for such issues as living wages, progressive taxation, marriage equality, affirmative action and immigrant rights.
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, who knew Stewart through his philanthropic work, took to Twitter Friday afternoon to remember Stewart.