Goodbye, Russ

I first met Russ Solomon in West Sacramento’s Tower complex in 1984. I’d been working at the company’s TRIP division for a month or two as the chain’s import and indie buyer. Russ’s office was just across the parking lot. My boss, Earl, was married to Frannie, who was Russ’s right-hand woman.

When walking into Frannie’s reception area, the first thing you’d notice was a long wall covered with large framed glass cases. They were full of neckties with business cards clipped to them.

The common element among the ties was they all bore the mark of having been sheared off.

L.A. music biz types would arrive wearing suits and ties for meetings. Russ would greet them — wielding a large pair of scissors. “We do things a little differently here,” he’d intone, smiling.

It became a rite of passage to visit Russ and have your tie cut off.

Welcome to West Sacramento. The hippies had take over the asylum. This particular institution was music retail, and Russ reigned over the realm with an irrepressible sense of humor and a reckless (and refreshing) entrepreneurial spirit.

Russ didn’t manage his company so much as turn it loose. He had his hatchet men, sure. A couple of them appeared in that documentary a couple years back (a fun film and a worthy watch, if you haven’t seen it). But you could always talk to him. His door was always open. Actually, his office, a huge corner space packed with LPs, CDs, books, cool art and ever-present bottles of wine, didn’t even have a door.

I never thought of him as a boss. We’d have informal meetings and he’d call me “kid.”

“Don’t fight me on this one, kid.”

Or, more often:

“I know you’ll get it done. Have fun out there. Go get ’em, kid”.

When I left the company in 1993, the new management at my division was likely thinking “good riddance.” I walked across the street, looked Russ in the eye, and handed him my resignation letter. He looked pained.

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“I can’t work with the new guy over there.”

He brightened for a second, and smiled.

“Tell him to fuck off!”

I shook my head, shook his hand, and thanked him. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. He was gracious. It was the last time I saw him.

I left after Tower peaked, and around the time the company was coming to the realization it had expanded too fast, opened too many stores, borrowed too much money, and was competing against the likes of Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Best Buy. CD burners, the internet and Napster were lurking just around the corner.

The company hung on until 2006. After Tower’s liquidation, Russ remained a presence in Sacramento, and, even throughout the tumult, disruption and catharsis that wracked music retail, his reputation among colleagues, competitors and former employees didn’t fade.

The word “maverick” gets thrown around a lot, but Russ earned the distinction — with innovation, integrity, dignity and hard work.

I have never encountered another person so widely respected, inside the music business or otherwise.

Russ died on March 4th while watching the Oscars. He was 92.

(and I find some solace in believing that, perhaps, he and I were expressing scorn and pity for Nicole Kidman’s dress at the same time).

So goodbye, Russ. And thank you.

Thank you for the fun years. Thank you for employing my otherwise-unemployable self and thank you for making me and so many other employees feel relevant. And necessary. And part of something exceptional.

Most of all, thank you for making Sacramento — and music retail — a good time for so long, and for so many.