For much of the 1980s and ’90s, before music playlisting and influencer culture democratized the term “best,” the name Gary Stewart carried with it a trademark of quality.
Stewart, whose death was confirmed Friday morning, served as the head of A&R for Los Angeles-based Rhino Records across that timespan, helping turn it from a taste-making retail store in Westwood to an essential reissue and archival recordings label. After leaving Rhino, he was hired by Apple’s Steve Jobs to transform the company’s fledgling iTunes music service, and eventually helped curate playlists in much the same way he crafted album releases.
Stewart’s death was confirmed by his longtime friend and colleague, Harold Bronson, Rhino’s co-founder. Stewart died Friday morning, according to the Santa Monica Police Department. His death is being investigated as a potential suicide.
As a music enthusiast, Stewart advocated for lesser known, unjustly dismissed or overlooked music by artists including the Monkees, Love, Dionne Warwick, the Neville Brothers and hundreds of others, and in doing so helped reframe cultural conversations by bringing into the present recordings considered to be long past their expiration date.
Said Rhino Records co-founder Richard Foos of Stewart’s work for the company across two decades: “I give him almost all the credit for overseeing everything. Approving every album, which were hundreds a year.”
Added Foos: “He was probably the greatest, most moral, giving, loving person I’ve ever met.”
A longtime advocate for charitable causes, his life was celebrated by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in a Twitter post, who called him “one of the funniest, most humble people we knew. A true champion of justice. A model of modesty, and most of all, our dear friend. L.A. is better off for everything he did. We miss you, Gary.”
Among many other community-centered endeavors, Stewart served on the boards of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and the Social Venture Network. He was also active with the Community Coalition and the Liberty Hill Foundation. While at Rhino, he initiated a requirement that all employees devote a few days annually to community service.
Like many executives of a certain age, Stewart entered the music business first as a customer looking for records and desperate for information.
“We all knew Gary as a nerdy 17-year-old,” Bronson said of the budding music fan’s arrival at the record store.
“He came into our store one day and never left,” Foos recalled. “He crossed over from customer to employee just by virtue of he was there all the time.”
Stewart was eventually promoted to store manager and moved to the label in the early 1980s, where he worked as a salesman before easing into A&R. One of his first signings was the country rock band the Beat Farmers.
“He was hungry to soak it all up and to learn,” Bronson said of Stewart. As the Rhino imprint evolved into a reissue label, Stewart harnessed his obsessions in service of important releases by the Bobby Fuller Four, the Byrds, the Kinks, Roy Orbison and more. It was the peak of the compact disc boom, and customers were eagerly updating their old vinyl with new plastic.
Among the many series he pushed were the label’s popular “Have a Nice Day” collections of 1970s pop; a celebratory series called “The Disco Years”; an R&B installment called “Soul Hits of the ‘70s”; and a “D.I.Y.” run of collections that explored independent rock, punk and power pop in the 1970s.
A native Angeleno, Stewart’s collection “We're Desperate: the L.A. Scene (1976-79)” successfully argued for the superiority of Southern California punk.
“Gary’s name is on a lot of records as a producer,” music producer Andy Zax, one of many who were mentored by Stewart, wrote in a Facebook post, “but I think his true passion was for compiling, separating out the things he thought were important, the things that really mattered — the greatest songs, the greatest ideas, the greatest people — from the inessential stuff that he could safely leave behind.”
Despite the volume of releases he ferried into existence during his tenure — the Discogs database lists over 700 — Stewart was adamant that the work he oversaw be as complete as possible. Foos recalled that Stewart’s first love was punk rock, and he spent years working on the definitive punk collection.
“We delayed it for seven or eight years because we couldn’t get one track,” Foos said. “We couldn’t get the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen.’ That’s how adamant he was.”
Said Foos, “He knew that no one else was going to do a definitive punk box set, or a disco [box] or any genre you could think of. He knew it was probably never going to be done again, so he was determined that it was going to be definitive. It was going to be the best.”
That determination, Foos stressed, was born of a fervor in the sanctity of music. After Rhino Records was absorbed into Warner Music Group, Stewart shifted to digital media at Apple.
Ever the ambassador, Stewart was known during the box set years to carry physical copies of whatever project he was currently obsessed with. Friends on Facebook recalled the bounty inside Stewart’s trunk, which he’d inevitably pop open to dole out discs and records you just had to hear.
Writer, producer and longtime record executive Bill Bentley wrote: “Gary was really in a party of one in the record business, someone who cared more about the music and others than his own stature. I never met anyone like him, and I don't expect to again.”
Added producer Andrew Sandoval: “Your record collections would not be the same without him and many people in Los Angeles wouldn't have had a dollar in their pocket or a roof over their heads if it wasn't for him.”