By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, May 16, 2003
The news last Friday that Tower Records is up for sale may not have been a surprise, given the company’s financial woes of the last few years. But the notion that the locally owned institution could fall into remote corporate hands felt to many like the end of an era.
The final act of the saga, of course, is still unwritten; Tower, even under different ownership or in a different form, may well continue as a major force in the retail record business.
But the realization that Tower, which was born in Sacramento and grew to include stores all over the world, is not indestructible has prompted many to reflect on the pivotal role Tower Records has played in area culture – and in pop culture in general.
In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in particular, Tower defined cool in Sacramento – though some may have seen it as arrogance – and it provided a unique common ground for people of varied tastes and interests.
No one is more surprised at Tower’s impact than the man who founded it – Russ Solomon.
“I knew, as time went on, that we became important to people’s lives,” he says. “But I didn’t think the store itself was important, but that we were providing something important to their lives, which was the music. The music was always the key.”
But Tower Records has been in some ways more than the music. Mick Martin, a former Tower Records employee who has gone on to radio, publishing, journalism and a dozen recordings of his own, says that for him, Tower has been, among other things, a source of civic pride.
“When I traveled, I’d go to the Tower store in London, New York, wherever,” he says. “It was a Sacramento thing, it was something we could lay claim to, it was our own.”
And just as it changed the record business, Tower changed Sacramento.
“In 1966, there was no place to go in Sacramento if you were into music,” Martin recalls. “If you were in a band, you played the teen centers, which were sponsored by the churches. There was no hip place to hang out.”
Tower became that place. Starting in 1941 on Broadway, inside his father’s Tower Drugs, Russ Solomon’s Tower Records gradually grew into the only real record store in town, at a time when records were sold in hi-fi stores, department stores and, yes, drugstores. Tower offered an alternative.
Dennis Newhall has worked as a DJ at local stations, including the legendary free-form pioneer KZAP. He is currently co-owner of the Sacramento record label Dig Music.
“There was nothing like Tower,” he says. “Their selection was so deep. If I found some artist I liked, I wanted all they’d done, and I could find it there.”
Subsequently, the company would expand to include Tower Books, Tower Posters (now defunct) and Tower Video, one of the first video rental chains. Solomon and his partners did concert promotion for 10 years as Tower Productions, and Tower’s creative promotional items included annual poster calendars that were ubiquitous in some precincts and are now collectibles.
Martin – from whom Newhall remembers buying albums – says that Tower’s reputation as the place to be meant that “you were close to the heat. It was where the new music was coming from, and music was crucial to everyone’s lives.
“I remember staying for four hours (in the store) and listening to this guy who played John Mayall’s ‘Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton’ album, and we’d just say, ‘Play it again,’ and he would. It was incredible. We’d never heard anything like it.”
Still, he adds, when he started working at Tower, it was not yet the countercultural headquarters it soon became. Instead, he says, crew cuts were the order of the day, and he got a talking-to when his hair got too long.
“When I started there, we were allowed to play only one rock record every four hours during the day,” he recalls.
But that soon changed, which Martin traces to the proximity of San Francisco’s Summer of Love and its exploding concert scene, which influenced KZAP’s playlist, which in turn drove more kids into Tower to look for records by the Doors and Jefferson Airplane and the hundreds of other bands that blossomed in that extraordinary time.
“We went from playing ‘adult’ music like Al Martino and Frank Sinatra to what was popular on FM radio,” Martin says.
In Sacramento, so close to yet so far from the countercultural epicenter of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, Tower was the counterculture. And for some time, the only thing hipper than being at Tower was working at Tower.
“If you worked for Tower, you were cool,” says Rick Hernandez, who started there in 1952, left to start his own record store, Rick’s Record Rack, and returned in 1969, retiring just three years ago. “I had people ask for applications all the time, but once people got in, they stayed there. Look at me.”
Getting hired at Tower was largely a question of luck and timing, but mostly, it was a matter of knowing and loving music.
“I’d be there all day, and to justify my existence, I used to file records and stuff, sweep up – just to hang out and listen. I begged them to let me open the first box of ‘Out of Our Heads’ (by the Rolling Stones). One day, they just gave me a job.”
Tower’s tendency to hire music nuts – and to turn them into educated music nuts – served both the company and its customers well. But just because someone knew the running order of every Frank Zappa album didn’t exactly make him – or, less often, her – a great customer service representative.
“Tower employees were so arrogant,” remembers one longtime customer who wants to be known only by her first name, Debbie. “It was like: Are you cool enough to buy a record from me?”
Former Tower employees admit that they may often have come off like Jack Black’s dismissive musical chauvinist in the movie comedy “High Fidelity.”
“Yes, you sometimes got the sense that they were doing you a favor by waiting on you,” Martin admits. “But on the other hand, I’d give people records, based on what they’d said they liked, let them take it home and listen to it, and if they didn’t like it, they could bring it back.
“I can’t think of one instance in which they wouldn’t come back and pay for it – and ask for another recommendation.”
Others contend that the extreme attitude of some Tower employees was, perversely, a part of Tower’s strange charm.
Mike Farrace started at Tower’s Watt Avenue store in the late ’70s and just recently left the company after moving to the main office and launching – and running – the magazine Tower Pulse! as well as the company’s online operations.
“Sure, some people got some attitude from a clerk,” he says. “But … I remember this older lady, a classical music fan, who would complain about this rock star-type guy who worked there, every time she came in.
“After a while, I noticed that she always wandered around until she encountered him, and then she complained about him. I think she enjoyed it – it was something intriguing to her.”
In that way, Farrace contends, Tower was much more than a mere retail outlet. It was, in fact, a cultural center at a time when many different cultures were bumping up one another, finding common ground where they thought there was none.
He uses his own relationship with his father as an example.
“It was populist, it was representative of the country in that almost anyone could walk in and find something they liked at Tower,” he says. “My dad, who used to fire up the lawn mower when I played my guitar, he loved Tower because he was into the song ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ Mario Lanza’s version. Tower had it, as it had stuff I liked, and that became a connection between us. And that probably happened every day – disparate parts of society meeting at Tower.
“If there’s one thread that runs through humanity, it’s music,” Farrace muses. “And Tower was the place you were mostly likely to see those connections take place.
“I don’t know if we’ll see that happen again in quite the same way.”