Russell M. Solomon opened his first Tower Records store in Sacramento on Watt Avenue in 1960. But the music-retail entrepreneur said he “actually started selling records in my dad’s drug store in 1941,” he told Capital Public Radio in 2016.
“We had a soda fountain at the drugstore,” Solomon recalled during that interview, describing how there was a jukebox next to the fountain. After a while, his dad asked him to take the used records off of the jukebox.
“‘Why don’t we see if we can’t sell them,’” Solomon remembered his dad telling him.
That moment more than 75 years ago was the idea that grew into Tower Records, the international retail empire that at its peak operated more than 200 stores in nearly two-dozen countries.
But Tower Records was more than just a store. Music fans described the chain as a safe haven: a place to explore new music and engage likeminded aficionados.
With extensive catalogs and passionate, knowledgeable workers who were hip to the newest band or most obscure offerings, loyal customers would spend hours upon hours walking the stores’ aisles, flipping through records and chatting up staff.
Hear the full 2016 conversation between Russ Solomon and CapRadio Morning Edition anchor Steve Milne on Solomon's history in the record business.
“It’s a place, for young people especially, to hang out,” Solomon said in the 2016 interview. “They didn’t have to buy anything. But they get experience just looking at what’s there. And I didn’t realize how important that was ’til later … until people came up to me and said, ‘You know, I spent my youth in your stores.’”
“If you loved music and you loved having a record collection, which I did, it was exciting to walk through the store. I went there three or four times a week,” said David Geffen in the 2015 documentary film All Things Must Pass. The film — directed by Colin Hanks, who spent much of his youth in Sacramento — chronicled the company’s rise and fall.
Solomon, an avid art collector, likened his stores to galleries where visitors could ponder the role that music played in their lives. “There is a museum quality, strangely enough, because when you go into a store like this, where we really care about keeping this large diversity of different things in here — and like to talk about it, like to feel it and touch it, as well as to hear it — you get a sense of history that you can’t get visually that easily anywhere else,” Solomon told Capital Public Radio’s Steve Milne in 2007.
Tower, which employed thousands of Sacramento residents during its decades in operation, filed for bankruptcy and closed all stores in 2006.
“It was one of the greatest tragedies of my life, to be honest with you, when it closed down,” musician and songwriter Elton John said of Tower Records’ closing in All Things Must Pass. “It really, really upset me. I miss it. I miss that routine, you know, of going to buy my records or my CDs, whatever.”
Solomon passed away on Sunday evening at his Sacramento home, reportedly while drinking whisky and watching the Academy Awards. Michael Solomon, his son, told The Sacramento Bee that he died of a heart attack. He was 92.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg wrote on Twitter that the world “lost a Sacramento and National icon.”
“Russ Solomon’s contributions to our community will last another 92 years & more. We mourn his loss & our thoughts are with his wife Patti and their family,” the mayor wrote.
Despite Tower’s downfall, Solomon remained in the music-retail game for a few more years. “I don’t think I ever stopped, is really the truth of it,” he told Capital Public Radio in 2007 upon the opening R5 Records, his post-Tower debut across the street from his father’s original drugstore.
“There was always the intention to keep on going,” Solomon said at the time, “because I love this business.”