Russ Solomon, 92, whose company Tower Records helped invent the music megastore but was felled by the rise of digital downloads and growing competition from discount chains, died March 4 at his home in Sacramento, Calif.
He was watching the Academy Awards and had just asked his wife “if she would go pour him a whiskey” when he apparently suffered a heart attack, said his son Michael Solomon.
A high school dropout who made his first album sale at 16, dealing used jukebox records out of his father’s California drugstore, Mr. Solomon built a music empire that sprawled across more than a dozen countries and nearly 200 stores.
Founded in 1960, Tower Records boasted more than $1 billion in annual sales, employing a strategy of low prices and a dizzying selection that kept audiophiles busy for hours. Under the direction of Mr. Solomon, known to some music industry observers as “King Solomon,” its stores modeled themselves after supermarkets, piling items on the floor and keeping their doors open until midnight in the era before the Internet made any song available at any time.
“Taking your date to Tower Records has become an institution,” CBS Records chief Walter Yetnikoff told the New York Times in 1987, “and it’s cheap if you don’t buy too many records.”
Mr. Solomon added books to Tower’s offerings in the early 1960s, expanded to video in 1981, and in 1995 partnered with the chain Good Guys to launch Wow!, a superstore for electronics and software as well as books, music and videos.
Yet his stores remained a mecca for music lovers – Elton John once boasted that he “spent more money in Tower than any human being” – even as vinyl was succeeded by cassette tapes and supplanted by CDs.
Stretching more than twice the size of rival neighborhood music shops, Tower stores stocked albums that ranged far beyond Top 40 hits to include international acts in rock, pop, classical and jazz. Mr. Solomon, who served as Tower’s chief executive until Michael Solomon took over in 1998, empowered his employees to stock their stores with nearly anything they wished.
“New Orleans had a huge heritage music section; Nashville had a gigantic country section,” Colin Hanks, director of the Tower documentary All Things Must Pass, told NPR in 2015. “Tower was, in essence, a bunch of mom and pop record stores. … Each store represented its city or its neighborhood in the city. They all had their own style.”
Employees such as Dave Grohl, who went on to become the drummer for Nirvana and frontman for the Foo Fighters, venerated Mr. Solomon, who wore jeans to the office and invited visiting executives to “donate” their neckties to a collage of cravats he kept outside his office.
But while Mr. Solomon’s ambition helped grow the business into a juggernaut – his competitor Barry Bergman once quipped that Mr. Solomon had “the guts of a riverboat gambler” – it also contributed to his undoing.
His company took on $110 million in debt to finance its global expansion, and by the turn of the millennium faced competition from big-box stores such as Best Buy and digital file-sharing services including Napster.
“The whole concept of beaming something into one’s home, that may come along someday,” Mr. Solomon said in a 1994 promotional video. “But it will come along over a long period of time, and we’ll be able to deal with it and change our focus and change the way we do business. As far as your CD collection – and our CD inventory, for that matter – it’s going to be around for a long, long time, believe me.”
Ten years later, Tower Records’ parent company MTS Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection, after closing many of its stores and struggling to find a buyer. It seemed to recover before filing for bankruptcy a second time in 2006, and going out of business later that year.
“The fat lady has sung,” Mr. Solomon wrote in an email to employees. “She was off-key. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.”
Russell Malcolm Solomon was born in San Francisco on Sept. 22, 1925. His mother worked as a bookkeeper for his father, and the family moved around California until his father started a pharmacy in Sacramento, inside the city’s Tower movie theater. The building gave Mr. Solomon’s company its name.
He studied photography in art school before serving as a radar technician in the Army during World War II, and later worked as a “rack jobber,” stocking store shelves with vinyl records, until going broke in 1960.
With a $5,000 loan from his father, he responded by opening his first Tower Records location in Sacramento. Eight years later he expanded to San Francisco, then the epicenter of American rock music, with a 6,000-square-foot store that was reportedly the nation’s largest. A Los Angeles outpost on the Sunset Strip followed in 1970, and a decade later Tower had megastores in Manhattan and in London’s Piccadilly Circus shopping district.
His marriage to Doris Epstein ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of eight years, Patti Drosins; two sons from his first marriage, Michael Solomon and David Solomon; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Solomon largely devoted himself to photography after Tower’s demise, exhibiting portraits of Sacramento artists whose work he had collected over the decades. But he also remained attached to music, and for several years ran a Sacramento record store.
His taste in music, Michael Solomon said, was as wide-ranging as that of his employees at Tower. “His own contemporaries would think the Beatles were madness,” he said, “but he loved it.”