Sacramento kids growing up during the Tower years (1960-2006) knew it as the home of cool. It was the place to go to find that elusive album you coveted – and if you didn’t find it, maybe you stumbled across something even better. Many a Sacramento teen bought their first album there.
One big step up the cool ladder from shopping there was working there, and a place behind the counter with the distinctive red and yellow logo was hotly coveted.
Tower employed countless workers in Sacramento and beyond over its 46-year run, mainly in the record, book and video stores, but also at its publication, Pulse! Every store was a little bit different, but all partook of the freewheeling culture set into motion by founder Russ Solomon.
Long before tattoos and weird hairstyles and colors became (somewhat) acceptable in the mainstream, Tower employees enjoyed the freedom to let their freak flags fly, courtesy of Uncle Russ (as some of us called him).
Solomon’s death Sunday at age 92 leaves not just big shoes, but an unfillable void, according to former employees who worked closely with him.
“Sacramento is losing an icon,” said former employee Dennis Yudt. “For me, Sacramento and Russ Solomon are synonymous with one another.”
Yudt, who worked at Tower Video on Watt Avenue circa 1984-85, later went to work for Pulse! as a writer and photo editor, an experience he described as “the biggest thrill of my life – the best job I ever had.”
PHOTOS: Remembering Tower Records' founder Russ Solomon
Solomon was “an enthusiast” who loved music, art, and movies and was dedicated to bringing what he loved to the widest possible audience, Yudt said.
“Tower ended up being a cultural center – wherever it set up shop was an epicenter of activity,” he added. “It was a place to talk about music, talk about books. If you wanted to know about what was going on musically – in any genre, go to Tower.”
On the last day of Pulse!’s operation, Solomon gathered his staff together in a final huddle.
“He loved Pulse! Magazine – that was one of his favorite things about Tower,” Yudt said. Solomon told them “how important he thought Pulse! was, and how sorry he was to see us go.”
At times, conversations about Solomon and Tower verge into the mystical. Words like "legendary" and "revolutionary" well up easily.
“There was nothing like it,” said former employee Reinhart Hohlwein of his Tower experience in the late 70s and early 80s. “…It was the center of the universe as we knew it, and Russ was the choreographer of all that and no one will ever forget it.”
Yudt sounded a similar vein.
“The music store – the quintessential record shop – it died with him yesterday… Tower Records has become almost mythical through the ages. It seems so implausible that’s how a business could be run.”
Solomon’s genuine love and enthusiasm for music (and art, and movies, and books), his embrace of his employees’ individuality and all around gung-ho attitude were the traits that set the tone for Tower culture, from corporate to counter, said Dal Basi, owner of Phono Select Records in South Sacramento.
Basi cut his teeth on the business first at a Stockton Tower location, then in New York, before working at Tower's corporate office, where he and Solomon became friends. After Tower folded he and Solomon ran R5 at the old Broadway location.
“He was a real gentleman out of old movies,” Basi said. “He was always like, ‘Go get ‘em – go get ‘em kid!’ Don’t be afraid of failure. The only way you learn in life is through failure.”
Solomon had an open-door policy, and employees who dropped in to talk about ideas were likely to be regaled with his latest music find or engaged in a discussion of books or films. New ideas found an interested listener in Solomon, whose influence runs through many different channels in the arts and music in Sacramento.
Basi’s work at Tower left a profound impression on him.
“It kept me out of the rat race my whole life,” Basi said. “I honestly believe I made the world a better place working there.”
R5 fell victim to "bad timing" Basi said, but he and Solomon remained close, and when Basi opened his own shop, Solomon was his biggest supporter.
Hohlwein, who worked at Tower Records on Watt Avenue for three years starting in 1978 before going to New York when Solomon opened a store there, said Tower was more of a cultural than a retail phenomenon.
“People wanted to hang out there – to peruse the records and walk back and forth and interact with staff,” he said. “It was much more than a retail experience… it was about the music and the power of the music. And face it, that was a powerful period for music.”
Holhwein fondly recalled a free Metallica concert in the parking lot of the Watt Avenue stores – a concert he could hear from his house two miles away.
“No one else would do that,” he said.
When someone dies, convention dictates no ill be spoken, but the fervor with which his employees sing his praises is persuasive.
“Everyone is going to be empathetic today – but I can go back 20 years and I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about Russ Solomon. No one,” Yudt said. “…Everyone is going to say the same thing about Russ – what a goddamn saint he was. It’s true. Every good thing you hear about Russ is true.