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RUSS SOLOMON:
A TOWERING ACHIEVEMENT

Russ Solomon, the beloved founder of Tower Records, who revolutionized music retail from the 1970s through the end of the 20th century,died on the  evening of 3/4 at his home in Sacramento. In Colin Hanks' documentary All Things Must Pass, Solomon comes off as a rarity in business—a loyal, benevolent and compassionate leader who gave his employees the freedom to create a unique atmosphere at Tower. The following biographical piece, based on extensive interviews with the great man himself by the brilliant journalist Mike Sigman, originally appeared in the July 2017 special issue, History of the Music Biz Two...



When Record World folded in 1982, I had no idea what to do next. It was the only job I’d ever had and it was the best job in the world. While agonizing over my next move, I heard that Tower Records was opening a store in downtown Manhattan and looking for someone to handle PR.

I had virtually no PR experience, but Tower was an awesome enterprise and, given that I had no job, the gig was worth checking out. A mutual friend set up a meeting for me with Tower owner Russ Solomon and his key associate Stan Goman at a New York City hotel.

Thankfully for all concerned, Tower hired someone qualified and their Manhattan store opening was a smashing success. Meanwhile, my erstwhile Record World colleague Lenny Beer—a friend since junior high—called me from Los Angeles with news that an upstart newspaper called LA Weekly was looking for a publisher.

Lenny hooked me up with Jay Levin, LA Weekly’s owner. But since I was totally unqualified for the position—never having been a publisher, lived in L.A. or worked for a newspaper—Jay, like Russ, hired someone else. When the new publisher instructed the women on the Weekly staff to shave under their arms because they looked too much like lesbians, he was fired and I suddenly looked good. When I asked Jay why he wanted to hire me after passing the first time around, he said, “Because you’re not an asshole.”

I moved to L.A. to run LA Weekly and stayed for nearly 20 years. It was the second-best job in the world, after Record World. Tower, a cultural institution in L.A., became our biggest advertiser and played an instrumental role in making the paper the largest and most successful alternative newsweekly 
in the country.

Today, with virtually all the world’s music literally at our fingertips, it’s easy to forget that in ancient times—I’m talking about the 1960s until early in the current century—you couldn’t have a hit record unless your product was in the stores. And the most important stores of that primordial era were the massive, massively hip Tower Records outlets in major markets throughout the known world.

The seeds of Tower’s dominance were planted in an even more primordial era and an unlikely place: Depression-era Sacramento, Calif. There, a 13-year-old boy named Russ began to absorb the inner workings of the retail business at his father’s Tower Cut Rate Drug Store.

Fatherly Advice

Reached by phone at his home—he still lives in Sacramento—Russ reminisced, “For us, the store was a way of life. My dad only paid me a couple of bucks a week, but all the elements that helped make Tower what it became go back to what I learned from him in that drugstore—how to interact with customers, how to merchandise, how to buy, how to sell, how to advertise. My dad deserves more credit than you can imagine. He was a very curious guy and he would sell anything. He carried cosmetics and candy and magazines and cigarettes.”

In 1941, when Russ was 16, the Solomons sold their first record—for a profit of 14 cents. “There was a little 12-play Wurlitzer jukebox on the counter of the soda fountain and that’s where my dad got the idea of selling used records. After World War II started, you couldn’t get records unless you turned in used records; they’d be ground up and they’d make new records out of them. So one day my dad said, ‘Maybe we can sell new records too. Let’s try a half dozen. If they sell, we’ll get more!’” he laughs. The cheap ones cost 21 cents and sold for 35. The big-time artists cost 35 cents and sold for 50.

Russ’s over-the-counter retail service was interrupted by overseas military service. “When the war ended, I came back and found that dad had taken space next door and enlarged the record department. That became my job and I started building it up, learning as I went along. We tried things, like building listening booths in the store so the kids could listen first. Then they’d come out and start dancing.”

By the early ’50s, the record-biz bug had bitten hard and Russ struck out on his own—in more ways than one. “In 1952, John Edgerton [Decca Records] and I decided we wanted to have a little wholesale operation and a one-stop and ultimately a rack jobber. Records had gone up to 75 cents by then. I asked my dad to finance it and he said, ‘No fuckin’ way.’”

Solomon père sold his operation to Russ. “I got the inventory and the bills. John left Decca and he and I opened a business across the street called Record Supply. When we ran out of money several years later, the creditors took over. By then I’d opened a branch in San Francisco called Record San Francisco, a wholesaler for jukebox operators. The creditors said, ‘That’s not a good idea, Russ. We don’t want to see you again.’

“In 1960, we reorganized and called it Tower Record Mart, and then I opened up another store on the other side of town at a bowling alley. A year later we got a larger space next door and called it Tower Records and got the logo with the colors and slanted letters. That store was a huge success from day one.”

“So now I’m sitting on the goddamn sidewalk in San Fran-cisco with Dick Harris, one of my employees, and we need jobs. Went back to Sacramento and the creditors had taken all the fixtures and everything out of the Record Supply operation of the drugstore. We put some LPs in boxes and operated off the floor and soon the kids were coming in and crawling around on the floor and buying the LPs. Pretty soon I was able to buy back my fixtures for $500. I was mad at my creditors, but they probably were right. All my buddies treated me badly, but then we all became friends again later.

“In 1960, we reorganized and called it Tower Record Mart, and then I opened up another store on the other side of town at a bowling alley. A year later we got a larger space next door and called it Tower Records and got the logo with the colors and slanted letters. That store was a huge success from day one. The music was great, the kids were dancing. LPs had replaced 78s, but 45s were the driver of the whole thing for us and for the industry.”

Russ is universally recognized as a visionary, but as he tells it, he saw things from the ground up.

“I never had a vision of anything. You just do things one step at a time and see if it works and you keep improving it. I always liked the idea of having a big variety of stuff. We stocked jazz, country, R&B, a little classical. It all sold."

A San Francisco Trip 

Though he’s spent most of his life in Sacramento, Russ was born in San Francisco. Shortly after the Summer of Love cemented that city’s prominence in the rock & roll and cultural pantheons, he realized his longtime dream of owning a store there.

“I went down to San Francisco on a date with this gal. I got up the next morning with a hangover and found the empty building that became Tower. We didn’t have any money but the labels financed us. By 1968, we had two stores in Sacramento that were chuggin’ along—we sort of dominated that market—and we had a good rep with distributors. But the guy who really helped me out was Sammy Ricklin of California Music Los Angeles [a one-stop on Pico Boulevard in L.A.]. A sweetheart of a guy and a jukebox operator, he gave me credit and one after another the other guys were more liberal. Of course it helped that we had great titles, and the store opened with a bang.”

Tower Records San Francisco quickly became the center of a pop music revolution. Russ says, “There wasn’t a better place in the world at that time. The Fillmore was cooking, The Avalon was cooking, the whole Haight-Ashbury thing was happening. All those bands were there and Rolling Stone magazine was just starting; for a while we were the biggest seller of Rolling Stone.

“It took time for the rest of the country to catch up with what was happening in San Francisco, and of course then it began to happen in L.A. and we went down there a couple of years later, which was great for us because the scene was moving there.”

Tower Sunset became more than a monumentally successful business. It came into its own just as the music industry’s center of gravity shifted to The Coast from Manhattan. The coolest labels—Casablanca, Asylum, Chrysalis—were within walking distance of the store. Legions of famous musicians lived in the neighborhood, and top execs, artists and managers haunted the store at all hours in a hassle-free, creative environment where it was hard to tell the employees from the customers.

 “Music was the fundamental criterion for hiring someone. They were all kids and they ran it, not me. What a great job to have—to rummage around and listen to all the great music you want and hang out with your peers. The people behind the counter were the same people shopping for records. They invented merchandising ideas. It wasn’t like the other chains, which had dress codes and rules and somebody gave you a dirty look if you didn’t buy something.

“There was competition in the early days—Wherehouse, Discount Records—but the chains didn’t have the inventory depth we had, and they had sort of rigid centralized controls on buying. At Tower, all the buying was local. The people in our stores were engaged in the process of running the stores and were in touch with what was happening in their area. On top of that, we were probably the only ones who stayed open seven days a week till midnight and on holidays. Being open on Christmas Day was great because kids want to get out and spend their Christmas money.”

“My idol for a long time had been Sam Goody, whom I met. They sold $5m out of one store in New York. No store in the world was doing that. And that’s because he did an incredibly wonderful thing: He gave up on 78s and 45s and concentrated on LPs.”

Funky, Funky Broadway

In 1983, having conquered the West Coast, Russ targeted New York. “I didn’t know much about New York,” Russ recalls. “My secretary had a friend in real estate and he put me together with Richard Halprin and he took me around in his limo—we called him Richie Rich—and showed me how the town hung together.

“He found this old building down on Broadway—it was sort of the East Village, two blocks from NYU and two blocks from Washington Square. I was still a bit unsure so I called Johnny Harper, a friend of mine who worked at PolyGram/Deutsche Grammophon, and he looked at it and said it was absolutely perfect. The store opened with a bang and not long after I remember Chris Hobson, our advertising guy, and I were in a taxi going down to the store and it was busier than hell. The taxi driver let us off in front and said, ‘I’ve been trying to find this place, and I don’t understand where all these people are coming from.’”

The store was a smashing success. Beyond that, the presence of Tower on Broadway turned a largely desolate area into a mecca for New York music fans and a booming stretch of prime real estate.

International Expansion

What was Russ’ strategy for Tower’s international expansion?

“There was no great strategy,” he says. “No one advised me—I wouldn’t have done it if anyone had advised me. Here’s how it happened: I’m sittin’ in my office in Sacramento around 1979 and couple of guys from Japan come to visit and they want to open up a record store chain in Japan. One had a connection with radio and the other had a connection with nothing. A few weeks later, they said, ‘We’ll send you a couple of tickets to come over here and we’ll show you around Japan.’ I said, ‘Why not?’

“We upgraded the tickets—we weren’t about to fly tourist to Japan, that’s for sure—and these guys showed us Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. We looked at the whole retail record industry, which was pretty archaic except for a few good stores in the Akihabara area.

“We saw an opportunity but thought we would start as a wholesaler of imported American records and create little record departments within existing chains. These two guys were supposed to run it but they didn’t know anything about anything, so we finally ended up sending our guy Mark Vidusich over there. He was basically a shipping clerk sending records over to the wholesale operation in Japan, but he kept it running out of a little warehouse building in Akasaka next door to a love hotel. After a while, we put so much inventory in the space that the landlord kicked us out because the weight of the records was making him worried his building was gonna fall down.

“Mark and I decided to find a retail location in an extremely busy shopping area called Shibuya that was oriented toward young people. We found a building, threw a bunch of records in there and the damn thing took off like you can’t believe. On the first day, hundreds of people were waiting in line to get in. Before long, we were doing a million dollars out of 4,000 square feet.”

Tower expanded throughout Japan, with its biggest store 
occupying a staggering 84,000 square feet. The rapid-fire global expansion that followed—London, Taiwan, Hong Kong Singapore and Latin America—came at a time when record sales were beginning their long slide in the early 21st century. That and a huge debt load gave Tower’s bankers an excuse to bring in new management, at which point Tower as we knew it ceased to exist.

“Music was the fundamental criterion for hiring someone. They were all kids and they ran it, not me. .. The people behind the counter were the same people shopping for records. They invented merchandising ideas. It wasn’t like the other chains.”

“At the end of the company’s life, the bankers made us go into a central buying system, which was all wrong,” Russ recalls, ruefully but without bitterness. “The record business was getting very shaky in 2005. I thought I knew what was wrong with the goddamn record industry: All the buying decisions for all the records in all the stores all over the country were coming from four places: Albany, N.Y.; Minneapolis; Amarillo, Texas; and Sacramento. How the hell do people in those places know what’s happening in Los Angeles, Houston or New Orleans?”

“We upgraded the tickets—we weren’t about to fly tourist to Japan, that’s for sure—and these guys showed us Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. We looked at the whole retail record industry, which was pretty archaic except for a few good stores in the Akihabara area.

“We saw an opportunity but thought we would start as a wholesaler of imported American records and create little record departments within existing chains. These two guys were supposed to run it but they didn’t know anything about anything, so we finally ended up sending our guy Mark Vidusich over there. He was basically a shipping clerk sending records over to the wholesale operation in Japan but he kept it running out of a little warehouse building in Akasaka next door to a love hotel. After a while we put so much inventory in the space that the landlord kicked us out because the weight of the records was making him worried his building was gonna fall down.

“Mark and I decided to find a retail location in an extremely busy shopping area called Shibuya that was oriented toward young people. We found a building, threw a bunch of records in there and the damn thing took off like you can’t believe. On the first day, hundreds of people were waiting in line to get in. Before long, we were doing a million dollars out of 4,000 square feet.”

Tower expanded throughout Japan, with its biggest store occupying a staggering 84,000 square feet.The rapid-fire global expansion that followed—London, Taiwan, Hong Kong Singapore and Latin America—came at a time when record sales were beginning their long slide in the early 21st century. That and a huge debt load gave Tower’s bankers an excuse to bring in new management, at which point Tower as we knew it ceased to exist.

“At the end of the company’s life, the bankers made us go into a central buying system, which was all wrong,” Russ recalls, ruefully but without bitterness. “The record business was getting very shaky in 2005. I thought I knew what was wrong with the goddamn record industry: All the buying decisions for all the records in all the stores all over the country were coming from four places: Albany, N.Y.; Minneapolis; Amarillo, Texas; and Sacramento. How the hell do people in those places know what’s happening in Los Angeles, Houston or New Orleans?”

Tower closed its doors in 2006, but has left an indelible mark on the record business and enhanced the musical lives of countless millions of music fans.

For one of those fans, actor Colin Hanks, the Tower experience was so meaningful he spent seven years making All Things Must Pass, a terrific documentary honoring the chain. “Tower sort of helped pave the way for your identity,” Hanks says in the film. “Music [gives you] a way of identifying yourself or your tribe. I got that at Tower Records.”

Russ, who was recently inducted into the California Hall of Fame, concludes, “Tower was, in essence, a bunch of mom-and-pop record stores. They were all under the same banner, the same name, the same yellow-and-red signage, but each one was run individually by the people in the stores: the clerks, the buyers for that store, the art department from each store. Each store had its own style, and represented its city or its neighborhood in the city.

“The people that worked for Tower loved their jobs. I once asked the personnel gal how many people worked for us over the years, and she said it was around 100,000.”

 

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