Remembering Gary Stewart, Rhino Records’ Rock Archaeologist

Written by on April 15, 2019

It was sad but fitting that news of the passing of Gary Stewart, a bedrock force in the modern age of rock & roll reissues, broke on Friday morning, April 12th — 24 hours before the doors opened for this year’s Record Store Day. Because for Stewart, every day was Record Store Day.

As the longtime head of A&R at Rhino Records, then at Apple Music as chief music officer and catalog curator for iTunes, Stewart — who was 62 and died by suicide in Los Angeles — celebrated the founding architects of rock & roll, the forgotten geniuses of the British Invasion and Sixties garage rock and America’s greatest blues, soul and country voices with the authority of a scholar, a fan’s missionary zeal and a sharing spirit that ensured that the rare B side or alternate take that could change your life was waiting just around the corner. And Stewart made sure it was there in the best fidelity, with definitive annotation and liner notes.

My own history in liner notes began, in big part, because of Stewart; his crack team of anthology producers, remastering engineers and ace copy editors; and their collective instinct for connecting subject and writer. In 1993, I landed one of my first boxed-set liner-notes gigs courtesy of Rhino: John Prine’s Great Days, a two-CD set of more than 40 classics and deep treasures from across the singer-songwriter’s first two decades on record. It was the kind of expansive, detailed history at which Rhino excelled, meaning I got to write at length and speak with Prine in the same, learning spirit. A few years later, Stewart personally commissioned me to write the essay — with new interviews — for the first career-length treatment of the Ramones, Rhino’s 1999 box set Hey Ho! Let’s Go. It would turn out to be the last time I talked to Joey Ramone before I had to write his obituary for Rolling Stone two years later. But Stewart’s famed attention to buried treasures in an artist’s canon meant I also got to write about my favorite Ramones B side, Dee Dee’s thundering lament “I Don’t Want to Live This Life (Anymore),” only available previously on a 1986 U.K. 12-inch single.

Born in Los Angeles, Stewart worked at Rhino — the original retail store in Westwood — before owner Richard Foos and then-store manager Harold Bronson launched the label in 1978. Working up from the store’s cash register to executive status as Rhino’s senior vice president of A&R, Stewart shepherded definitive reissue programs devoted to the Monkees and Elvis Costello and critically acclaimed anthology projects covering psychedelia, doo-wop, girl groups, punk and the L.A. jazz scene of the Forties and Fifties. When Rhino turned its attention to future catalogs, signing new acts, Stewart looked first at home, bringing in the L.A. band the Beat Farmers and singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill.

Obituaries posted during the weekend by Billboard and the Los Angeles Times have more details about Stewart’s history and charitable efforts in the record industry. But while I lost touch with Stewart when he left Rhino in the early 2000s to work at Apple Music, the imprint of his early support and enthusiasm remained deep in my ongoing writing for reissues — both for and beyond Rhino — while his passion for rock & roll archaeology is present throughout my record collection. One very personal example: In 2001, Rhino issued Ultimate!, a 52-track boxed set of precedent-shattering power blues by the Yardbirds, covering every hit and key deep track from the Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page eras. When I opened the booklet, I was honored to find that Stewart, as the compilation’s producer, had included my name in the credits, in the “Thank you” list.

I was also surprised: I hadn’t written anything for the release. When I asked Stewart why I was there, he said it was because of everything I had written everywhere else on that band and its lead-guitar trinity, keeping that music alive. It was his message from one true believer to another. And Stewart put it where he knew I would find it: in the fine print that came with a great record.

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