Talk about the perfect coda: Tower Records founder Russ Solomon died with a drink in his hand and a smart-aleck remark on his lips.
The swashbuckling, visionary entrepreneur who built a global retailing empire and the most famous company in Sacramento history died Sunday night of an apparent heart attack. He was 92.
Solomon was watching the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night at his Sacramento-area home when he was stricken, said his son, Michael Solomon, the former chief executive of Tower.
“Ironically, he was giving his opinion of what someone was wearing that he thought was ugly, then asked (his wife) Patti to refill his whiskey,” Solomon said. When she returned, he had died.
Russ Solomon was the guiding force behind Tower, the chain that revolutionized music retailing until it was swamped by iPods, big-box stores and other dramatic changes in the industry.
Tower went out of business in December 2006 after a second stint in bankruptcy.
As if to defy the digital forces that reshaped the music business, Solomon opened another music store just a few months later, on the very site of one of Tower’s flagship stores in Sacramento. But the encore fell flat, and he gave up after three years. Nonetheless, Solomon enjoyed a redemption of sorts as the star of “All Things Must Pass,” a poignant documentary on Tower’s history produced by actor and former Sacramentan Colin Hanks. The movie debuted in March 2015.
Hanks, in a Twitter post Monday, said “the world lost an absolute legend.”
Solomon was honored in other ways in his later years. He was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2016 (with the likes of Harrison Ford and Maria Shriver) and two area entrepreneurs announced plans to open a Jewish deli in his name on the site of an old Tower store in downtown Sacramento. The Sacramento Kings installed a neon Tower store sign in the lobby of their new arena, Golden 1 Center.
And on Monday, it was if the music had never stopped. Accolades poured in from around Sacramento and the recording industry as news of his death spread.
“Long aisles were packed with bins containing thousands of titles in every imaginable genre. The stores stayed open late and became evening hangouts,” wrote Variety magazine in an outline obituary. “The Towers on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and Broadway in New York’s Greenwich Village were landmarks in their own right.”
Singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb tweeted,
“Tower Records was such a huge part of my growing up.” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, also on Twitter, called Solomon “a Sacramento and National icon.” Gov. Jerry Brown’s press office tweeted condolences.
A pioneer who was admired by employees and competitors alike, Solomon made Tower a $1 billion-a-year business stretching from Boston to Bogota, Colombia, with major outposts in Tokyo and London. He operated on a philosophy that was obvious to him but extraordinary for its day: Build big stores and pack them with as much music as possible. The company eventually branched into books and video.
Rival chains sprung up, borrowing heavily from Solomon’s notion that “big was beautiful,” said Glen Ward, former head of the Virgin record stores in North America. “He was probably the inventor of the mega-store.”
But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Tower was overwhelmed by big-box discounters, Amazon.com and digital downloading. The company also over-expanded and was partly to blame for its downfall.
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