Russ Solomon, who grew Tower Records into one of the world’s largest record and video retailing chains and was the subject of a well-received documentary on his life, has died. He was 92 and passed away at his home in Sacramento, California of an apparent heart attack, according to his son, Michael Solomon.
Solomon was a beloved and iconic figure in the music and video industry, and his stores were a favorite of fans for its broad selections of media. Many of the stores became landmarks in the cities where they were established, with the Sunset Strip Tower Records becoming a favorite hangout of stars from Prince to Elton John.
The elder Solomon was watching the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night at his home when he apparently had a heart attack.
“Ironically, he was giving his opinion of what someone was wearing that he thought was ugly, then asked (his wife) Patti to to refill his whisky,” Solomon said. When she returned, he had died.
Solomon grew Tower from a section in his father’s Sacramento drug store to a chain that was internationally recognized. But the forces of technology gradually eroded sales just as the chain bet heavily on expansion, borrowing money to fuel it. The move was a perfect storm of bad timing, and Tower gradually dwindled and finally declared bankruptcy.
Solomon enjoyed a redemption of sorts as the star of the 2015 documentary All Things Must Pass, a nostalgic look at the man and the chain.
Solomon, whose personal warmth and accessibility never flagged despite the chain’s growth, was honored late in his life via induction into the California Hall of Fame. There is also a strong movement to have him as the first retailer inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1941, 16-year-old Solomon cajoled his father Clayton Solomon into giving him space in his drug store in the Tower Theater building at the corner of Broadway and Land Park Drive. He called the business Tower Record Mart.
The section took off, and Solomon opened a wholesale business. It had some rocky times – it actually failed in 1960 – but Solomon borrowed money and persuaded his creditors to supply him with new inventory.
The first stand-alone Tower was born shortly after, and Tower soon became the go-to place for entertainment, offering fans a selection that went well beyond the hits into deep catalog. To those who loved music – and later video – it was more than a store. It was a place to hang out and meet like-minded people, comparing tastes and turning them on to undiscovered artists.
The rise of the music industry in San Francisco inspired Solomon to open a location there, and Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard followed in 1970. 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. Solomon was No. 335 on Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, with his wealth estimated at $310 million.
That was the peak, but the downside was to swiftly come. Tower, like many chains, was slow to embrace the online world, and the free-for-all world of the Internet soon made paying for music seem quaint to many young people. Solomon famously said that the Internet would never take the place of stores. He later acknowledged that he was wrong.
The company filed for bankruptcy in 2004, and after some financial maneuverings by outsiders, was forced into bankruptcy a second time in 2006 and liquidated.
Undaunted, Solomon gave record retailing one more try. He opened a store called R5 Records at his old location in Sacramento. He later sold the store and retired to another of his loves, painting and photography.
No funeral or memorial is planned, Michael Solomon said. The family will hold a large private party for friends, according to Michael Solomon.