Tower Records founder Russ Solomon dies at 92; City College continues his legacy in the photography department

Portrait of Russ Solomon, founder of Tower Records. Randy Allen | Photography Professor

Jason Pierce
News Editor

Music lovers around the globe recently found themselves looking back to an era long gone—reminiscing about the hours they spent rummaging through record stores, looking for that one album they just had to have, waiting in line to get tickets to a show or just hanging out with any number of the interesting and eccentric employees. These were their memories of the sights and sounds of Tower Records.

City College alum and Tower Records founder, Russ Solomon, died in his home March 3, according to The Sacramento Bee, making an exit in the same unconventional manner as he lived his life—drinking whiskey and watching the Oscars. He was 92.

Solomon suffered a heart attack in his home during the awards show, according to his son Michael Solomon, former chief executive of Tower, speaking to The Sacramento Bee.

Attending City College in the 1940s, Solomon started taking photography classes and working as a photographer on the school paper, then called the Pony Express, leading to a lifelong passion in the art.

“Everybody knows Russ from Tower Records, but not a lot of people know he was a photographer,” said Randy Allen, City College photography professor. “Russ often said, ‘If I hadn’t chosen music retail as a career, I would have pursued a career as a fashion photographer. My fascination with photography started as a young man when I received my first camera at the age of 16.’”

Walking through the photography/journalism department at City College on the second floor of the Student Services Center, one can’t help but notice his connection to the school on display. A sign that says “Russ Solomon Gallery” in large white letters stretches across a clear, thick piece of glass perched above a collection of large photography prints, all neatly lined up to showcase recent student work.

“He didn’t know that we were going to name the gallery after him,” said Allen. “And, of course, right away he said, ‘Well, what did you do that for?’”

Surrounded by frinds and loved ones Tower Records founder and City College alum Russ Solomon attends the unveiling of the ‘Russ Solomon Gallery’ on the second floor of the students services building on the campus of Sacramento City College, Wednesday October 26, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif. (Photo by Randy Allen)

Surrounded by friends and loved ones Tower Records founder and City College alum Russ Solomon attends the unveiling of the ‘Russ Solomon Gallery’ on the second floor of the students services building on the campus of Sacramento City College. (Photo by Randy Allen)

Early in 2015, as the photography and journalism departments were moving to the new Student Services building, there was a discussion about what to name the new gallery space. Allen thought of naming it for Solomon because of his passion for photography. With the help of City College art professors Michael Stevens and Suzanne Adan, who are close friends of the Solomons, Allen was able to make arrangements to have Solomon come by and see the new space.

“Russ came by the studio and was really impressed,” said Allen. “During the visit, Solomon came up with the idea of shooting portraits in the new studios and hanging them in the gallery.”

That idea led to two shows of Solomon’s work at City College. Shooting hundreds of portraits over several days, Solomon brought in local celebrities, former mayors, community members and students and faculty from City College. The two shows ran simultaneously at the end of 2015. “Legends” went up in the photography/journalism department, featuring large portraits of prominent Sacramento residents, and “Community” shown in the Kondos Gallery at City College, featured the remaining portraits.

“Then he became like our best uncle,” said Allen, showing the cameras and books that Solomon donated. “He was interested in helping out the department.”

As part Russ Solomon’s 90th birthday celebration in the fall of 2015, the Solomon family started an endowed scholarship for the photography/journalism department, raising $24,059, followed by matching funds of $25,000 by City College. The scholarship has an annual award of $1000, awarded to a photography student.

“Russ was always somebody who’s had this amazing life, and run this amazing business and been very, very wealthy and very, very famous, but every time I sat and talked to him, he was always more interested in what I thought about photography or what I thought about a new camera,” said Allen. “Every time I got a new camera, that’s the first place I would go, to show it to Russ. He was fascinated with cameras and fascinated with the idea of photography.”

Solomon began his career by selling records in his father’s drugstore when he was 16, after being kicked out of high school for lack of attendance, according to Allen. Solomon eventually started the international music franchise Tower Records in 1960, which grew to nearly 200 stores in 15 countries at its peak. The company succumbed to bankruptcy in 2006 after the music industry went digital, and record stores around the globe closed their doors.

“The first album I bought with my own money was from Tower Records. I bought a bunch of albums after that and spent a lot of time walking up and down the aisles,” said Kris Hooks, former Editor in chief of The Express.

Hooks spent the day with Solomon at his home for a 2015 interview for City College’s Mainline magazine.

“He kinda just talked however he wanted. He would talk your ear off and tell you all sorts of stories if you asked,” said Hooks.

“Nobody really figures out what they want to do when they’re that young, as to what they want to do in the long haul,” Solomon told Hooks during the interview. “You might be interested in something, but basically everything is unsettled. In those days, anyhow. So when I got out of the service, I came back (to Sacramento) and I needed a job. I went back to work for my dad in our record department, which we had in the store. And that became my encompassing field for the next, I don’t know, 60 years or so.”

The Solomon family has requested that any donations in Solomon’s memory go to the Sacramento City College Foundation for the Russ Solomon Scholarship Fund.

Read more about Russ Solomon’s photo project in The Express.

Read the Mainline profile of Russ Solomon by Kris Hooks in The Express.

Editor’s Note: Randy Allen is photography adviser to the Express

Charr Crail’s video of Russ Solomon’s photo shoots