Tower Records founder dies while watching the Academy Awards

WASHINGTON • Mr Russ Solomon, whose company Tower Records helped invent the music megastore, but was felled by the rise of digital downloads and growing competition from discount chains, died on Sunday at his home in Sacramento, California. He was 92.

He was watching the Academy Awards and had just asked his wife "if she would go pour him a whiskey", when he apparently suffered a heart attack, said his son Michael Solomon.

A high-school dropout who made his first album sale at 16, dealing used jukebox records out of his father's California drugstore, Solomon built a music empire that sprawled across more than a dozen countries and nearly 200 stores.

Founded in 1960, Tower Records boasted more than US$1 billion in annual sales, employing a strategy of low prices and a dizzying selection that kept audiophiles busy for hours.

Under the direction of Mr Solomon, known to some music industry observers as "King Solomon", its stores modelled themselves after supermarkets, piling items on the floor and keeping their doors open until midnight in the era before the Internet made any song available at any time.

Yet, many patrons said there was a club-like intimacy about the stores, where, as singer Bruce Springsteen once put it, "everyone is your friend for 20 minutes". He and stars such as actress Bette Midler and musicians Lou Reed and Michael Jackson were regular patrons.

Mr Solomon added books to Tower's offerings in the early 1960s, expanded to video in 1981 and, in 1995, partnered the Good Guys chain to launch Wow!, a superstore for electronics and software as well as books, music and videos.

Yet, his stores remained a hot spot for music lovers - performer Elton John once boasted that he "spent more money in Tower than any human being" - even as vinyl was succeeded by cassette tapes and supplanted by CDs.

Stretching more than twice the size of rival neighbourhood music shops, Tower stores stocked albums that ranged far beyond Top 40s hits to include international acts in rock, pop, classical and jazz.

Mr Solomon, who served as Tower's chief executive officer until his son Michael took over in 1998, empowered his employees to stock their local stores with nearly anything they wished.

"We wanted people in the store to run the store - they're your strength," he said in an interview last September. "Central buying is just a bad idea. You can't make decisions on what to do in Phoenix if you're sitting in New York or London."

Employees such as Dave Grohl, who went on to become the drummer for Nirvana and frontman for the Foo Fighters, venerated Mr Solomon, who wore jeans to the office and invited visiting executives to "donate" their neckties to a collage of cravats he kept outside his office.

Tower began opening stores abroad in the 1980s, starting in Japan and spreading in Asia, Europe and Latin America.

In the 1990s, it became the United States' largest privately held music retailer, with nearly 200 stores in the nation and 14 other countries. However, it never went public.

"That was the dumbest thing I ever did," Mr Solomon conceded. Selling stock might have paid for further expansion.

Instead, his company took on US$110 million in debt to finance its global expansion and, by the turn of the millennium, faced competition from big-box stores such as Best Buy and digital file-sharing services including Napster.

Tower declared bankruptcy in 2004 and, in 2006, it was forced to liquidate and close.

"The fat lady has sung," Mr Solomon wrote in an e-mail message to employees. "She was off-key. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You."

Russell Malcolm Solomon was born in San Francisco on Sept 22, 1925. His mother worked as a bookkeeper for his father and the family moved around California until his father started a pharmacy in Sacramento, inside the city's Tower movie theatre. The building gave Mr Solomon's company its name.

He studied photography in art school before serving as a radar technician in the army during World War II and later worked as a "rack jobber", stocking store shelves with vinyl records, until going broke in 1960.

With a US$5,000 loan from his father, he opened his first Tower Records store in Sacramento.

Eight years later, he expanded to San Francisco, then the epicentre of American rock music, with a 6,000 sq ft store that was reportedly the nation's largest.

A Los Angeles outpost on the Sunset Strip followed in 1970 and, a decade later, Tower had megastores in Manhattan and in London's Piccadilly Circus shopping district.

His marriage to Ms Doris Epstein ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of eight years, Ms Patti Drosins, and two sons from his first marriage, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Mr Solomon largely devoted himself to photography after Tower's demise, exhibiting portraits of Sacramento artists whose work he had collected over the decades. But he also remained attached to music and, for several years, ran a Sacramento record store.

His taste in music, Mr Michael Solomon said, was as wide-ranging as that of his employees at Tower.

He said: "His own contemporaries would think The Beatles were madness, but he loved it."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2018, with the headline 'Tower Records founder dies while watching the Academy Awards'. Subscribe