Russ Never Sleeps: Sharing Memories of Tower Records
On Sunday night, March 4, 2018, as he sat in front of his television sipping whiskey and watching the Academy Awards, Russ Solomon passed away at age 92. He will be forever known as the man who opened up a record store in Sacramento, California that through the years expanded to over 200 locations in 15 countries. Forty-six years later, the last store closed its doors. In July 2010 I published an article for No Depression about my own connection to Tower Records, and I’m sharing it here again.
Tower Records founder Russ Solomon finally decided to retire at age 84. After the chain he founded in 1960 was liquidated back in late 2006, he’d been running the R5 record shop in Sacramento at one of his former locations. In May 2010 he decided to throw in the towel and sold it off to Dimples Records, whose owners threw Russ a retirement party on July 17. The story of how Tower grew from one store in California’s capital to an international iconic retailer of music and lifestyle products, and then ultimately imploded under the confluence of financial, technological, and cultural change was hardly unique to them.
Almost every music fan of a certain age was touched in some way by Tower Records, either as a consumer, musician, employee, or business partner. I’d venture to say that most of us still long for the opportunity and experience of visiting one of their stores for browsing, listening, learning, people-watching, and knowing that you were in a space surrounded with other people like yourself, who loved, valued, collected, and supported music. Before Tower spread its wings and flew beyond the Golden State, there were few regional stores that also offered their size and selection.
During the ’60s in New York and other eastern cities in the US, we had the original Sam Goody chain (not the latter mall version), which was similar to Tower in that it offered a wide product selection in all categories and knowledgable customer service from mostly male employees wearing white shirts and ties. In the ’70s down in Atlanta, Peaches was a store noted for a more organic feel, with its unpainted wood shelves and crates and a much more laid back staff. And while there were others that were smaller in scale, as time passed Tower Records survived as a stand-alone, privately held company of large magnitude, and it resisted becoming a cookie-cutter, rubber-stamped retailer – simultaneously their greatest asset and ultimate liability.
Russ has often been called a “Music Man,” which implies that he cared more about the music that sat on the shelves, his employees, and his customers than he did about making a buck. But that’s a partial truth that diminishes his incredible business acumen. His strength and legacy will likely be as a visionary who was honest, fair, and passionate. And unlike many other music executives I’ve dealt with, Russ was a patron of all art forms, and given the chance he’d prefer to talk jazz or contemporary art rather than numbers on spreadsheets. Had you found yourself showing up to his office wearing a tie, his signature move would be to get up, take a pair of scissors, and cut the damn thing off. It became a rite of passage to have yours hung up on the wall like a dead carcass along the others.
Most of my memories of Tower were as a business partner. For many years I called on dozens of their stores as a salesperson representing independent labels, and later moved into a corporate position that often took me to their headquarters in Sacramento. More than any other client, the Tower folks were just plain fun to deal with. There were days where I felt blessed to actually get paid for having such a good time. I travelled extensively and visited almost every one of their domestic retail locations, got to hang out with music people who spoke my language and we broke bread, smoked dope, shared laughs, and discovered new music. And I’d almost always come home with a bright yellow bag filled with new tunes.
Today, as a consumer, I’m fortunate to be only 90 minutes from Amoeba Records in Hollywood if I need that non-online experience. [Note: In 2012 I moved to New York.] And when I’m down there it’s great to see so many former Tower employees still in the game, as well as folks who had worked at stores such as Virgin, Aron’s, Rhino, Music Plus, Wherehouse, and all of the other retail dinosaurs. Amoeba, Waterloo in Austin, Music Millennium in Portland, Electric Fetus in Minneapolis, and all the rest of the today’s survivors would agree that they owe a debt of gratitude to that very first Tower store that Russ opened back in 1960 in Sacramento that set it all in motion.
I still miss them. And so it seems like a good time to say “Thanks Russ; enjoy that retirement.”
Postscript: In his New York Times obituary, they detail both the rise and fall of Tower Records. For those who may never have had the opportunity to visit a Tower store, here’s an excerpt:
“With marketing instincts that even rivals and critics called ingenious, Mr. Solomon built megastores, some bigger than football fields, and stocked them with as many as 125,000 titles, virtually all of the popular and classical recordings on the market.
Yet many patrons said there was a clublike intimacy about the stores, where, as Bruce Springsteen once put it, ‘everyone is your friend for 20 minutes.’
Open all year from 9 a.m. to midnight, staffed by hip salespeople who could answer almost any question about recordings, the stores became the haunts of music aficionados scouring endless racks for rock, heavy metal, jazz, blues, standards, classicals, country-westerns and myriad other offerings. Sometimes popular bands and singers performed in the stores.
‘When you walked into the Tower Records store in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood back in the day, you just didn’t go in there to buy an album and then rush off to leave,’ journalist David Chiu wrote in Cuepoint, an online publication, in 2016. ‘To me, going into Tower was like visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art or attending a baseball game — it required a certain investment of time.’
Mr. Solomon sold and closed stores and converted others to franchises. At the same time, the music business went into a slump. Tower declared bankruptcy in 2004, and in 2006 it was forced to liquidate and close.
Mr. Solomon acknowledged that he had underestimated the internet’s threat to store retailing. Pirates downloaded music without paying for it, and paying customers turned to online vendors and price-cutters like Wal-Mart and Best Buy. The owner blamed himself.
A nostalgic documentary, ‘All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records,’ directed by the actor Colin Hanks, was released in 2015. It featured Mr. Solomon and many of his former employees and patrons, including Elton John, who called the shuttering of Tower Records ‘one of the great tragedies of my life.’
Many of my past columns, articles and essays can be accessed at my own site therealeasyed.com and I also aggregate and post daily on Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed.