Russ Solomon, the music-loving visionary who built a global retailing empire and the most famous company in Sacramento history, died Sunday night. He was 92. David Caraccio The Sacramento Bee
Russ Solomon, the music-loving visionary who built a global retailing empire and the most famous company in Sacramento history, died Sunday night. He was 92. David Caraccio The Sacramento Bee

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Founder of Tower Records dies at 92 while drinking whiskey and watching the Oscars

By Dale Kasler And Bob Shallit

dkasler@sacbee.com

bshallit@sacbee.com

March 05, 2018 11:33 AM

Talk about the perfect coda: Tower Records founder Russ Solomon died with a drink in his hand and a smart-aleck remark on his lips.

The swashbuckling, visionary entrepreneur who built a global retailing empire and the most famous company in Sacramento history died Sunday night of an apparent heart attack. He was 92.

Solomon was watching the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night at his Sacramento-area home when he was stricken, said his son, Michael Solomon, the former chief executive of Tower.

"Ironically, he was giving his opinion of what someone was wearing that he thought was ugly, then asked (his wife) Patti to refill his whiskey," Solomon said. When she returned, he had died.

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Russ Solomon was the guiding force behind Tower, the chain that revolutionized music retailing until it was swamped by iPods, big-box stores and other dramatic changes in the industry.

Tower went out of business in December 2006 after a second stint in bankruptcy.

As if to defy the digital forces that reshaped the music business, Solomon opened another music store just a few months later, on the very site of one of Tower’s flagship stores in Sacramento. But the encore fell flat, and he gave up after three years. Nonetheless, Solomon enjoyed a redemption of sorts as the star of “All Things Must Pass,” a poignant documentary on Tower’s history produced by actor and former Sacramentan Colin Hanks. The movie debuted in March 2015.

Hanks, in a Twitter post Monday, said "the world lost an absolute legend."

Solomon was honored in other ways in his later years. He was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2016 (with the likes of Harrison Ford and Maria Shriver) and two area entrepreneurs announced plans to open a Jewish deli in his name on the site of an old Tower store in downtown Sacramento. The Sacramento Kings installed a neon Tower store sign in the lobby of their new arena, Golden 1 Center.

And on Monday, it was if the music had never stopped. Accolades poured in from around Sacramento and the recording industry as news of his death spread.

"Long aisles were packed with bins containing thousands of titles in every imaginable genre. The stores stayed open late and became evening hangouts," wrote Variety magazine in an outline obituary. "The Towers on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and Broadway in New York's Greenwich Village were landmarks in their own right."

Singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb tweeted, "Tower Records was such a huge part of my growing up." Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, also on Twitter, called Solomon "a Sacramento and National icon." Gov. Jerry Brown's press office tweeted condolences.

A pioneer who was admired by employees and competitors alike, Solomon made Tower a $1 billion-a-year business stretching from Boston to Bogota, Colombia, with major outposts in Tokyo and London. He operated on a philosophy that was obvious to him but extraordinary for its day: Build big stores and pack them with as much music as possible. The company eventually branched into books and video.

Rival chains sprung up, borrowing heavily from Solomon’s notion that “big was beautiful,” said Glen Ward, former head of the Virgin record stores in North America. “He was probably the inventor of the mega-store.”

But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Tower was overwhelmed by big-box discounters, Amazon.com and digital downloading. The company also over-expanded and was partly to blame for its downfall.

“We borrowed too much money,” Solomon said years later. “It was unsustainable.”

Russell M. Solomon’s story was a Sacramento legend: In 1941, the 16-year-old began selling used jukebox records at his father Clayton Solomon’s drug store in the Tower Theater building at the corner of Broadway and Land Park Drive. He called the business Tower Record Mart.

Russ' shop soon had its own street entrance. Later came listening booths for previewing new records. Solomon opened a wholesale business, too.

Nothing stopped him – not a two-year Army hitch during World War II, or the failure of the company in October 1960. He quickly borrowed $5,000 and persuaded creditors to supply him with new inventory.

“He went right back to the same guys, the same creditors who put him out of business,” said Dick Harris, an early employee. “It was the power of personality.”

Solomon incorporated the new business weeks later as MTS Inc., after his son Michael Toby Solomon, and music fans resumed their trek to the Broadway drug store.

Soon after, Solomon opened Tower North on Watt Avenue, his first stand-alone store. (It wasn’t until 1965 that the original location, in dad’s drug store, moved into its own building across the street).

What Tower achieved was a sensation. Until the 1960s, there weren’t many record stores outside of the Sam Goody chain in New York. Music was sold mostly in the remote corners of department stores. Inspired in part by dad’s drug store, which sold a wide variety of goods, Solomon offered music fans a veritable feast, with generous helpings of the offbeat and obscure. Word soon went out: Tower sold records you couldn’t find anywhere else.

"When I walked into that store (on Watt Avenue), I pretty much said, 'Wow,'" said John Radakovitz, founder of the Dimple Record chain in Sacramento. "My hair caught on fire. It was the size, the scope, the display. ... I fell in love at that moment with the record business."

It was a Sacramento-only phenomenon. Then, one morning in 1968, nursing a hangover at a diner in San Francisco, he looked up from his breakfast and spied what he called a “vacant, derelict building” near Fisherman’s Wharf. He quickly rented it. The store opened just as the golden age of San Francisco rock was peaking.

“The whole Fillmore scene was going, the whole music scene was going, the whole dope scene was going,” he said years later.

Sunset Strip in West Hollywood followed in 1970, and became a magnet for rock stars and industry executives. Mick Jagger dropped by; Elton John was practically a regular.

A decade later came the first overseas store, in Tokyo. By the mid-’90s the company had $1 billion in annual sales and more than 200 stores.

In 1990, at age 65, Solomon came in at No. 335 on Forbes’ famous list of the 400 richest Americans. The magazine pegged his wealth of $310 million. “Is that all?” he quipped to a reporter.

Tower headquarters in West Sacramento’s warehouse district was plain on the outside but bursting with color on the inside, emblematic of Solomon’s love of art. (Tower owned an art gallery.)

The headquarters artwork included hundreds of neckties confiscated by Solomon from any visitor silly enough to wear one in his presence, then tagged with the offender’s business card and placed in a glass display. He took the ties with him after Tower folded.

“He gave people a lot of freedom,” said longtime Tower executive Stan Goman. “Did he care what time people came to work? No – he had no idea.”

Dave Fouche, an employee during the 1960s, said Solomon “liked to have a good time and came across as loose … but he knew where his i’s were dotted and his t’s were crossed when it came to business.”

Solomon loved new stores. When a grand opening in Austin, Texas, ran overtime, he reportedly told an underling, “Just keep the booze going.”

He rarely gave interviews, saying, “I hate personal publicity.” But when the self-described “aging hippie” did talk to the press, he exuded a swashbuckling spirit. Like the time in 1990 when he opened a Tower Books in ultra-competitive Manhattan.

“I figured it was a pixie, chancy thing to do,” he told the Wall Street Journal at the time. “But I always wanted my stores in big cities.”

After undergoing open-heart surgery, Solomon in 1998 surrendered the chief executive job to his son Michael, who’d been Tower’s general counsel. The elder Solomon remained board chairman.

By that point, music retailing was undergoing a major revolution. The Solomons were slow to react, and it possibly hastened Tower’s downfall.

It was a perfect storm: competition from big-box stores, Amazon, the major bookstore chains. College kids gleefully downloaded music for free on the rogue website Napster.

Tower had a website, too, but its heart was in brick-and-mortar. It kept opening new stores, in the U.S. and overseas. The internet “is certainly never going to take the place of stores,” Solomon told The Bee in 2000.

In a rare public appearance in 2010, at a Sacramento bookstore speakers series, he acknowledged his errors.

If not for its heavy debt load – more than $300 million at one point – he said Tower would have survived. He added that the digital downloading phenomenon spread more quickly than he imagined.

By 1999 Tower was losing money. It began closing stores, and sold its profitable Japanese locations to raise cash. At the banks’ insistence, Michael Solomon was replaced as CEO by a consultant, the first outsider to run Tower.

The company filed for bankruptcy in 2004. It survived, but the Solomon family was left with just a 15 percent ownership stake. Creditors gobbled the rest, in exchange for canceling millions in debt. Russ Solomon got a seat on the board and the title “chairman emeritus.”

After a brief revival, sales headed south again. The last straw was the fierce competition from Apple’s iTunes service, and Tower made its second bankruptcy filing in 2006.

There was no reprieve this time. Following a 30-hour auction at a Delaware law office on Oct. 6, 2006, a liquidator bought Tower’s assets.

Within minutes, Solomon had his assistant fire off an email to employees: “The fat lady has sung. … She was off-key. Thank you, Thank you, Thank You.”

The going-out-of-business sales began the next morning. And on Dec. 22, 2006, the lights went out at the last remaining Tower store in Sacramento, on Watt Avenue.

Tower didn't completely disappear. Its overseas stores, now owned by franchisees, continued in a handful of countries, notably Japan. The last remaining Tower in Europe, a store in Dublin, Ireland, tweeted an appreciation of Solomon on Monday: "We're keeping the flame well and truly lit."

Solomon didn't stay retired for long. Six months after the liquidation sale ended in the U.S., Solomon was at it again. Working in partnership with his second wife, Patti Drosins, he opened a single shop called R5 Records, at the old location on Broadway. The name came from his first initial and his favorite number.

“You may be crazy but you do it anyway,” he once said, explaining his decision to go back into business. “It’s a little like a painter that gets to retirement age and doesn’t retire.”

Solomon was trying “to prove to the world he was right,” Goman said. “He never lost vision.”

But even Solomon saw the struggle of running a record store in an era dominated by Wal-Mart and the Web. He told a Sacramento audience in early 2010, “Maybe I’m believing in something that’s drifting away.”

A few months later, he sold out to Dimple Records, a small Sacramento chain that shares some of Solomon’s feistiness and irreverence.

"We will miss your inspiration," Dimple said on Twitter on Monday.

Over the past few years, Solomon remained busy doing portrait photography and had several exhibitions, including one recently at the Kondos Gallery at Sacramento City College. He did a photo session with a client just a week ago, said Michael Solomon.

"He was basically quite healthy. This was unexpected." he said.

Michael said his father will be remembered as a "charismatic, common-sense entrepreneur" who engendered the love of all who worked for him.

"He was sort of a Pied Piper," he said. "People followed him and adored him. They wanted to do what he wanted."

No funeral or memorial is planned, Michael Solomon said. Instead, family will hold a large private party for his myriad friends.

The family is asking people to donate to a scholarship fund in his name to assist students in arts and photography.
Those wishing to make donations can send them to the Russ Solomon Scholarship Fund at Sacramento City College, Rodda Hall North 222 at 3835 Freeport Blvd, Sacramento, Ca., 95822 or donate online at

Tower Records founder Russ Solomon reflects on the legacy of the business he founded. Ed Fletcherefletcher@sacbee.com