Russ Solomon, founder and overseer of the Tower Records empire, died Sunday at his home in Sacramento, California. He was 92.
Solomon’s family told the Sacramento Bee that he likely suffered 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,” at which point he died, Solomon’s son Michael Solomon told the newspaper.
Solomon started Tower Records – named after the local Tower Theatre – in 1960, growing the business from the back of a Sacramento drugstore to, at its peak, a CD giant with over 200 brick-and-mortar stores spanning North America to Japan.
The history of Tower Records was recounted in Colin Hanks’ 2015 documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, which focused on Solomon’s unorthodox business acumen; Solomon often offered executive-level jobs to the music-loving clerks who worked at his stores. The Sacramento Bee shared an anecdote about Solomon detesting neckties so much, he forced visitors of Tower’s headquarters to remove their ties, “then tagged with the offender’s business card and placed in a glass display.”
“You find the people that get their shit together, who get the job done, regardless of how much fun they have — and you leave ’em alone,” Hanks told Rolling Stone of Tower Records’ laissez-faire management style. “It’s pretty dangerous, but it works for the era and for the music business. Russ kept finding himself in the right place, at the right time, with the right attitude.”
In 1999, Tower Records peaked with $1 billion in annual sales. However, the company over-expanded in an era where big box retailers encroached and digital file-sharing programs like Napster emerged. Five years later, Tower Records would file for bankruptcy, although Solomon at that point had moved into a board position with the company. Tower Records ultimately went out of business in 2006.
Following a liquidation of Tower’s assets, Solomon emailed his employees, “The fat lady has sung….She was off-key. Thank you, Thank you, Thank You.”
“Within 0.3 seconds we knew that Solomon was a total character,” Hanks added. “But he insisted that he was not responsible for Tower’s success, and that it was really the people that had started as clerks and worked their way up.”
Michael Solomon told the Sacramento Bee that his father was a “charismatic, common-sense entrepreneur.” “He was sort of a Pied Piper,” he said. “People followed him and adored him.”