Russ Solomon, Tower Records Founder, Dies at 92

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Russ Solomon

He first began selling records as a 16-year-old in Sacramento at his father's drug store and went on to open chains across the globe.

Russ Solomon, who founded Tower Records in 1960, died Sunday. He was 92.

According to The Sacramento Bee, Solomon died while watching the Academy Awards ceremony when he apparently had 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 company went out of business in late 2006, following two bankruptcy filings — the first a pre-packaged Chapter 11 in February 2014 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 standalone store in 1960 and eventually moved that original shop into its own building in 1965.

In the decades that followed, he built a chain that expanded throughout the U.S. and added locations across the globe. 

"Russ was a true renaissance man; he will always live in my heart," former Universal Music Group Distribution CEO Jim Urie said in an email to Billboard.

James Donio, president of the Music Business Association (Music Biz), said in a statement of Solomon's passing: "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, 100,000 music titles and a large selection of video. He also built a small book chain and ran an art gallery store.

The Tower at Broadway and 4th Street in New York City transformed a backwater street filled with warehouses and flophouses into one of the premier retail locations in the city, as the thousands of customers that flocked to the story daily proved enticing to other chain retailers.

Soon, with Tower as its anchor, the area was bustling with commercial activity all through the 1990s. Since the chain was liquidated and that store shuttered in 2006, it now seems to have as many empty stores with "for rent" signs as actual open 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 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 were in the U.S. and 67 were international outlets in seven countries, including the U.K., Singapore, Taiwan, Japan (49 stores) and Hong Kong. There were also franchises and joint ventures in South America, Israel and the Philippines.

However, 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, leaving Solomon and his family a 15 percent stake.

In 1998, Solomon handed over the reigns to his son Michael, who became CEO. 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 weighed on Tower.

When the chain finally succumbed to a Chapter 7 liquidation in 2006, many in the music industry mourned the event as if it were 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, a vice president 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 said 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.

"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."

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. 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 was indeed at the center of youth culture around the globe for nearly four decades. But while Solomon and Tower were the documentary subject of actor Colin Hanks' All Things Must Pass (2015), 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 Sony Music, said he met Solomon four decades ago when he was the music director at KROY-Sacramento and the radio station and Tower Records worked in conjunction to promote Bill Graham-staged shows.

"There'll truly never be another one like him," Sherwood said in a 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." 

This story first appeared on Billboard.com.