Tower Records founder Russ Solomon died Sunday at the age of 92.
According to the Sacramento Bee, Solomon died while watching the Academy Awards ceremony at his Sacramento home when he apparently suffered from 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 refill his whisky,” Solomon’s son, Michael Solomon, told the newspaper. When his wife returned, the music retail legend had died.
Tower Records revolutionized music retailing until digital music took over the business. The company went out of business in late 2006, following two bankruptcy filings — the first a pre-packaged Chapter 11 in February 2004 and then a Chapter 11 filing on Aug. 20, 2006, that quickly turned into a Chapter 7 liquidation.
Solomon first began selling records as a 16-year-old in Sacramento at his father’s drug store in the city’s Tower Theater building, calling his business the Tower Record Mart. He opened his first stand alone store in 1960 and then eventually moved that original shop into its own building in 1965. In the decades that followed, he built a chain that expanded throughout the United States with locations across the globe.
“Russ was a true renaissance man; he will always live in me heart,” former Universal Music Group Distribution CEO Jim Urie said of Solomon in an email to Billboard.
James Donio, president of the Music Business Association (Music Biz), said in a statement of Solomon’s passing: “Music Biz is extremely saddened to learn of the passing of a true music industry legend and icon, Russ Solomon. As the founder and CEO of Tower Records, Russ was one of the primary architects of NARM in its formative years. His and Tower’s presence and influence loomed large in our Association for many decades. You always felt the love when Tower was in the room. He served on our Board of Directors and held the office of Chairman from 1987-88. During his tenure, he presented his Chairman’s Award to Barbra Streisand, which he remembered as a highlight of his career. He himself was honored with our Presidential Award for Sustained Executive Achievement in 1999.”
Indeed, Solomon was not only an innovative music retailer but a visionary all around merchant. He built one of the first category killers/power retailers, opening up huge stores with 35,000 square feet of space and 100,000 music titles, as well as large selections of videos. He also built a small book chain and even ran an art gallery store. His store on Broadway and 4th street in New York City transformed a backwater street filled with warehouses and flophouses into one of the premier retail streets in the city, as the thousands of customers that flocked to his story daily proved enticing to other chain retailers. Soon, with Tower as its anchor, the street was bustling with commercial activity all through the 1990s. Since the chain was liquidated and that store was shuttered in 2006, that area now seems to have as many empty stores with for rent signs as actual open retail stores.
Solomon was a larger than life character, with a personality as charismatic as many of the rock stars whose records he sold. As the owner, he empowered his employees to make decisions at the store-level, as he deployed a de-centralized chain with inventory curating done at the local level.
At the chain’s peak it had $1.1 billion in revenue from 173 stores, of which 106 stores were in the U.S. and 67 stores were international outlets in seven countries, including the U.K., Singapore, Taiwan and 49 stores in Japan, as well as one in Hong Kong. There were also franchises and joint ventures in South America, Israel and the Philippines.
But the global expansion came at a cost and with nearly $300 million in debt, the company announced a restructuring plan in 2001 that allowed it to stave off Chapter 11 until 2004 when it implemented a pre-packaged Chapter 11 filing in which debt holders agreed to trade most of their debt for equity in the company, leaving Solomon and his family a 15 percent stake. Meanwhile, in 1998 Solomon handed the reigns over to his son Michael who became CEO and, as the chain struggled over the next eight years, the CEO office had a revolving doorway as executive came and went. Even the sale of the Japanese chain for $120 million couldn’t stop the bleeding as, in addition to debt, loss leader pricing from big box stores, digital piracy and the debut of iTunes all weighed in on Tower’s problems.
When the chain finally succumbed to its second Chapter 11 filing in 2006 and quickly resolved into a Chapter 7 liquidation later that year, many in the music industry mourned the event like it was a death in the family. At the time, a liquidating consortium had the winning bid with a $140 million offer, which totaled $151 million with other asset sales — outbidding Trans World Entertainment’s $138. 5 million bid, which would have amounted to a total liquidation of $149.5 million. Instead of letting the U.S. stores live on, as they would have with Trans World, the bankruptcy judge said it was more important to validate the Chapter 11 process and allowed the sale to go through to the liquidation consortium, which shuttered the stores and put 2,700 employees out of work.
At the time, Melissa Greene-Anderson, VP of Gotham Distribution/Collectables in Conshoshocken, Pennsylvania, told Billboard, “It’s a pretty say day. We have lost probably the most unique and successful retailer that we have ever had in the industry.”
After Tower Records closed Solomon opened R5, another record store in his hometown. But that lasted for just three years until it, too, was sold and Solomon transitioned into retirement.
“I fondly recall walking with him through the ‘Gallery of Memories’ we created for our 50th Anniversary Convention in 2008 as he provided a running commentary of each and every photo and piece of memorabilia we displayed,” Music Biz’s Donio added in his statement. “Russ returned to our annual conference for the first time in many years as we honored his dear friend John Esposito of Warner Music Nashville with that same Award in 2016. Coincidentally, he sat with Mary Wilson of The Supremes at our Industry Jam that same year, and I recall this surreal moment looking out into the audience and seeing them chatting and laughing together. I am so lucky to have known and worked with Russ during my nearly 30 years here at the Association. Russ was quite outspoken and having a conversation with him about the music business was always a priceless education. He never ceased to amaze me with his unique wit and wisdom. I had actually just spoken with Russ a few days ago about a special tribute we’re planning for him at our 60th Anniversary Conference in May, and he planned to be there. Our heartfelt condolences go out to Russ’ beloved Patti, his family, friends, colleagues, and all of the music fans around the world who have a special memory of what Tower Records meant to them.”
In a story on vinyl in 2015, when Billboard asked Solomon what he viewed as the heyday of Tower Records, he responded, “I guess you’d say the heyday started in 1960 and ended in 2006. There you go. [Laughs] Actually, I’d say 1968 was the seminal year because we opened in San Francisco in 1968. That’s when the music community noticed us. San Francisco had the Fillmore and the Avalon and all of the musicians from that scene. The Summer of Love had morphed into hippie culture, and kids were flocking from all over to see the scene.”
Tower Records, led by Solomon, was indeed at the center of youth culture around the globe for nearly four decades. But while Solomon and Tower Records were recently the subject of actor Colin Hanks‘ All Things Must Past documentary, in recent years the quest by many of Solomon’s friends and former music industry executives to have him inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame has fallen on deaf ears at the nominating committee.
Retired music executive Bob Sherwood who had top positions at Mercury Records and with Sony Music, remembers that he met Solomon four decades ago when he was in radio as the music director at KROY-Sacramento when the radio station and Tower Records worked in conjunction with promoting Bill Graham-staged shows.
“There’ll truly never be another one like him,” Sherwood said of Solomon in an emailed statement. “I’m not sure what St. Peter’s going to do with him but there’ll be plenty of musicians welcoming him near the Gate.”