After 92 years of working overtime, Tower Records founder Russ Solomon’s heart finally gave out March 4.
Solomon and his stores inspired the kind of employee loyalty that retailers fantasize about. People who worked for him as teenagers made their careers at Tower Records, and many who moved on looked back at the store as a highlight of their youth.
Former employees recalled Solomon as a “philosopher” with an immense capacity for forgiveness who they “loved for 100 years.” His visionary streak built a billion-dollar company out of a Sacramento drugstore before it ultimately ran out as the world entered the digital age.
Mike Farrace was a 22-year-old in Tower’s advertising department when he learned his supervisor had been throwing his music magazine mock-ups straight into the trash. Distraught, he complained to co-workers, who advised him to leapfrog his manager and go straight to the big boss.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Farrace sent a proposal up to Solomon through Tower’s inner-office mail system. Twenty minutes later, he was discussing the magazine over lunch with the founder and his secretary. Pulse! magazine ran from 1983 until 2002, publishing a total of 222 issues, and Farrace eventually became Tower’s vice president of worldwide marketing and a lifelong friend of Solomon’s.
“When I saw Russ, I always felt like I was going to the well,” Farrace said. “His knowledge was so expansive, and he was such a sensitive and intelligent person ... he was super tolerant and so comfortable in his own skin.”
Los Angeles-based comedian Jacob Sirof, who worked at a Tower video store in Berkeley as a teenager in the early 1990s, met Solomon only once at a holiday party. Tower had several thousand employees by then, but Solomon made an effort to connect with everyone at the party down to the store clerks – even if Sirof wasn’t initially thrilled with his observation.
“He approached me and said, ‘I have a picture of me in my office from when I was younger, and I look exactly like you,’” Sirof said. “I’m 18 years old, and this bald guy with a beard says he used to look like me, and I’m Jewish as well, so I'm thinking, ‘Oh man, that’s what I’m going to look like when I’m older?’ But hey, if I can live until I’m 92, I’ll take the baldness as part of that.”
Inside the 200-plus stores, it was organized chaos. Employees dressed, styled their hair and talked however they wanted, said Heidi Cotler, one of the first female employees who later became Tower Books’ vice president of operations.
Solomon kept a stocked bar in his office, and Tower Records attracted employees who wanted not only listen to the musicians of the day, but party like them as well. In “All Things Must Pass,” Colin Hanks’ 2015 documentary on Tower’s rise and fall, Cotler mentions several employees powering through long nights with the assistance of “hand truck fuel,” a euphemism for cocaine.
Solomon discovered the building for his first store in San Francisco while battling a hangover after a night out in San Francisco, and employees were expected to handle their business in a similar fashion. The lights still had to come on at 10 a.m., no matter what had happened the night before.
“We showed up to work, we partied hard and cocktail flu was not a reason to stay home,” Cotler said. “He gave you the keys to the store and said, ‘Don’t lie, cheat, steal, or embarrass me. I trust you to do right thing.’”
Solomon wasn’t the guy throwing a lampshade over his head after a few drinks, longtime employee Jackson Griffith said. No, Solomon was the one meandering about the party, always accompanied by a few people who wanted to soak up his vibe.
“He was a presence,“ Griffith said. “You knew if you were hanging out with Russ, you were part of a good thing and you were going to have a good time.”
Solomon spared no expense for lavish Christmas and New Years’ parties, where Cotler said at least one television was thrown into a lake outside, or when he hosted record label executives for the Tower Annual Conference, which often took place at the Radisson Hotel Sacramento. After daytime business meetings, Solomon would bring out then-unknown performers such as Dwight Yoakam and Celine Dion.
He opened his own label called 33rd Street Records as well attached to a Greenbrae music store where Carlos Santana, Robin Williams, George Lucas and other celebrities browsed the aisles, then-product manager Terri Seeley said.
Seeley, 45, opened a Sonoma store in 1995 and proceeded to work for Tower for the next dozen years. She still works in the same building where the Greenbrae store once was, though it’s since been turned into a Trader Joe’s.
“If (Tower) was still open, I’d still be working there to this day,” Seeley said. “I loved it and I didn’t want to do anything else.”
Solomon also supported employees in other ways. When the AIDS crisis spread in the 1980s, he was known to keep paying employees suffering from the virus long after their bodies prevented them from showing up for work, including up until their premature deaths.
“To me, that alone was the act of a true mensch,” Griffith said.
A cocktail of reckless expansion, competition from bulk retailers and the emergence of internet streaming services ultimately led to Tower’s demise, and Solomon was forced to lay off employees who had put in more than 30 years at the company.
Griffith worked in Tower Records stores in Stockton and Citrus Heights before writing for Pulse! from 1984 through 2000. He took a job as Sacramento News & Review’s arts editor after Solomon's son Michael, then an outside consultant, took over Tower. Now working for a pest control company’s corporate office in Lodi, Griffith said he appreciated his exposure to the wide range of people and personalities he met while at Tower.
“It made me a lot more open-minded and a lot less black-and-white in my thinking,” Griffith said. “When you leave a place like that, it takes a little bit of time to put it into perspective and think, ‘Wow, we really had a special thing going. That’s probably only time I'm going to be involved in something like that.’”
Farrace and five other former executives got together for dinner with Solomon one last time in October. They picked Tower Café, next to where Solomon began selling records out of his father's drugstore 77 years ago.
Some of the men met up again on March 4 at B-Side, a retro Sacramento bar at 15th and S streets with audio equipment to match. This time, each raised a glass of whiskey to their departed friend as they listened to the records spin.
Benjy Egel: (916) 321-1052, firstname.lastname@example.org