In this earbud world of all that is digital and separate, it is perhaps hard to imagine a phenomenon as intimate and alive as the record empire Russ Solomon created in 1960 from his father’s Sacramento pharmacy.
Anyone who came of age in the second half of the 20th century in this country knew what it was to, at some point, be swallowed alive by a Tower Records – to disappear into the bins and bins of vinyl, or, later, CDs and cassette tapes. To realize that anyone could see what music you pulled, and judge it. To find yourself on the receiving end of a discourse from some guru-like sales clerk, armed with exquisite, encyclopedic knowledge.
If it was a Tower Records in California – in Los Angeles or San Francisco, or one of the flagship stores in Sacramento – you might glance up and see someone from an album cover, David Lee Roth, Jackson Browne, The Doors, Duran Duran, right there at the next bin, just perusing. Bette Midler was said to have barged into a Tower one day and moved all of her recordings to the “rock” section from “vocal.” Michael Jackson would hide in the back and peek out to see what people were buying.
“I can say, without exaggeration, that I spent more money at Tower than any other human being,” Elton John said in the 2015 documentary about Solomon’s international chain, “All Things Must Pass,” made by the actor Colin Hanks, a fellow Sacramentan.
Bruce Springsteen, in the same film, called it a “Lost Boy’s club” for traveling musicians: “If you were a young musician and came into town and didn’t know what to do, the first thing you did was you went to Tower Records,” he said.
Springsteen noted, importantly, the human touch that characterized Solomon’s enterprise: “That audience you dreamed of is walking through the door right now, and you can stand there and watch that happen,” he said. Like all record stores, Tower was “that place where your dreams meet the listener . . . where the final connection was made.”
Connecting was what Solomon did – with his times, with musicians, with his customers, with the lenders who, despite ups and downs, continued to loan him money. With the many employees who loved him. With the rivals who copied him. With the city that honors him today.
That knack made him rich, and then much less so: Like so many of his era, he couldn’t imagine, until it was too late, a world that didn’t prefer human contact.
Even as the century turned, and Napster-downloading kids sat alone at their screens and looted his market, he insisted to The Sacramento Bee that the internet “is certainly never going to take the place of stores.” Of course, it did.
Solomon died on Sunday at 92, watching the Academy Awards on TV. “He was giving his opinion of what someone was wearing that he thought was ugly, then asked [his wife] Patti to refill his whiskey,” his son Michael told The Bee’s Dale Kasler and Bob Shallit. By the time she returned, he was gone.
On screen, a young director from Sacramento was a Best Picture nominee for a 21st century coming-of-age film, and one movie after another dealt with the yearning not to feel so disconnected. Maybe that was just a coincidence, in this post-Russ-Solomon era, and maybe not.