Wednesday, January 9, 2019

In Memoriam--Russ Solomon

Steve Hackett: A Tower Struck Down
[purchase All Things Must Pass, the Tower Records documentary]
[purchase Hackett's Voyage of the Acolyte]

My earliest music purchases, I think, were from the Bradlees store in New City, but I soon discovered the record department at Korvette's, with a pretty good selection of new music at reasonable prices, and a big bin of cheap cutout records, which basically satisfied my music buying needs until college. During my time at WPRB, I was often able to get free copies of records that I wanted, or bought things at the embryonic Princeton Record Exchange (or its traveling precursor), and I often frequented used record stores in the Village. And when I wanted new music, I usually went to J&R, down by the courthouses. There was only a brief period in my life that Tower Records, in the Village, near Lincoln Center, and even in Nanuet near where I grew up, was a destination. And by the time that the company closed, in 2006, it was a non-factor in my music buying life.

But you could argue that Tower Records created the music retail industry model that started in the 60s, and continued strongly for a long time, and it was created from the quirky mind of Russ Solomon, who died on March 4, 2018, at the age of 92. Solomon reportedly died from cardiac arrest, while watching the Academy Awards, after insulting someone’s clothing, and asking his wife to refill his whiskey glass. Here's Solomon’s obituary from his hometown Sacramento Bee.

Although Tower’s New York outposts, particularly the Village store, were important in their day, I always thought of the company as more of a West Coast phenomenon. And it was in Sacramento that Solomon started selling used jukebox records in his father’s pharmacy at the age of 16.  After service in WWII and an early failure, he opened standalone stores in Sacramento, and then, critically, in San Francisco in 1968, just at the right moment.

Solomon’s genius, for the time, was to hire workers who knew and loved the music, to give them autonomy, and to stock “everything” in huge stores devoted primarily to records. He treated his employees well, provided tons of perks, fostered a party atmosphere, and expanded his concept across the world, while competitors knocked it off to create their own stores and chains.

One famous example of Solomon’s eccentricity was the collection of neckties in the company’s headquarters in Sacramento, confiscated from anyone with the temerity to wear one in his presence, tagged with the (former) owner’s business card.

However, Solomon, and his son Michael, who became CEO in 1998 when his father had open-heart surgery, failed to go public and instead relied on debt to finance expansion, and like so many others, didn’t foresee the effect of music downloading or online retailing, leading to the company’s bankruptcy in 2004, and again in 2006, at which point the company was liquidated.

Six months later, Solomon opened a new record store in Sacramento, but sold it after 3 unsuccessful years.

Much of this, and much, much more, can be seen in the excellent, loving, documentary, All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, directed by the actor Colin Hanks, which was released in 2015.

I needed a song, because this is a music blog and all, so Steve Hackett’s “A Tower Struck Down” seemed appropriate, although that tower is from tarot cards, not music retailing. And I wonder if Russ Solomon would appreciate the irony of discussing Tower Records and offering a free mp3 download, and links to purchase a DVD and music from Amazon.

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