Editor’s note: This is the sixth part of a series regarding the history of the “four corners” of Watt and El Camino avenues.
For nearly 45 years, Tower Records drew music lovers to the northeast corner of Watt and El Camino avenues. And despite this popular record store’s absence, many locals will never forget their fond memories of this location of the business.
The roots of what eventually became known as Tower Records date back to 1941. It was then that Russ Solomon began selling records inside his father’s drugstore in the Tower Theatre building at the southwest corner of 16th Street and Broadway.
The Tower Records on Watt Avenue began drawing people in large numbers on a regular basis in the early 1960s and the love affair with this Tower did not end until the store’s closure in 2006.
Also attracting many people to this site were Tower Books, which also opened in the 1960s, and Tower Video, which debuted in the 1980s.
During interviews conducted at various Arden area sites last week, local residents shared their memories about this former landmark Tower, where a Goodwill Industries thrift store and a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market is now located.
Mary (Parr) Harris, a 1970 graduate of Hiram Johnson High School, said that she was one of the store’s first and last customers.
“That’s where I came (record shopping) was the (Watt Avenue) Tower,” Harris said. “I probably bought The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s (Lonely Hearts Club Band) and Abbey Road albums there (in the 1960s). I was a big Beatles fan when I was a kid. And Herman’s Hermits, I loved them. And of course, then the Rolling Stones came around. It really upset me when they closed (the Watt Avenue Tower). I didn’t like that. I went in there and bought stuff on their last day. There wasn’t much left – it was pretty well picked over – but I’m a shopper, so I can always find something (to buy).”
Also sharing his memories about the north area Tower Records was Steve Nifert, a 1974 graduate of Casa Robles High School.
“I probably went to (the Watt Avenue) Tower Records for the first time in about 1962,” Nifert said. “I used to go to Tower Records all the time. I bought a lot of CDs there. They were the only one in town who had old, big band music from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. I had a lot of rock and roll (albums), but my preference was (big band music). I love the brass bands and stuff. It’s just so much coming at you than a lot of noise. And then when the 1980s came along, music quit making sense.”
Dan Blakkolb, who built a career for himself as a bass guitarist, also shopped at the Watt Avenue Tower Records during the 1960s.
“My memories of Tower Records are that’s where you bought records back in the 1960s,” said Blakkolb, who still prefers vinyl records over CDs. “I knew one girl who worked there, I think in the late 1960s, and her name was Linda Wysocki. But I think she worked at the 16th Street (Tower Records). Linda’s father (Charlie) owned Tone’s Music (House at 1009 14th St.). They carried the early Fenders (electric guitars and amplifiers) and he specialized in accordions, as well. I first came to this (Watt Avenue) Tower in 1964. I believe the first album I purchased there was ‘Surfin’ Safari’ by The Beach Boys. I also bought The Beatles stuff, Kingston Trio albums and a lot of folk albums there. I probably bought more albums than I did (45 rpm records).”
Blakkolb, who graduated from Hiram Johnson High School in 1966, said that it was during that time when he met a guitarist named Steve Samuels, who would play his guitar in front of the north area Tower Records.
“He was out in front playing Bob Dylan tunes,” recalled Blakkolb, who currently plays in the longtime, local party-dance group, the Jay Rolerz Band.
Blakkolb also remembers spending many hours inside the Watt Avenue Tower Records’ listening booths.
“I remember listening to newly released 45s and albums for general enjoyment and for ideas for my band at the time,” Blakkolb said. “Whether you bought anything or not, you were never pressured to buy records or asked to leave. They were always nice at Tower. Listening to records in the listening booths was a great way to spend a day.”
J.J. Jelincic, who still owns his copy of the British band Cream’s 1969 album, “Goodbye,” which he purchased at the Watt Avenue Tower, remembers the store’s vibrant neon sign.
“(The sign) just dominated the whole place,” Jelincic said. “You could drive down the street and there was Tower Records. The fact that anything else was there, you’d never know. It was terrific.”
Terry Ray, a 1981 graduate of McClatchy High School, said that it was during the late 1970s when she purchased her first album at the north area Tower.
“The first album I bought at that Tower was Janis Joplin’s ‘Pearl,’” said Ray, who first visited the store during her childhood in about 1965.
Jerry Scott, who graduated from El Camino High School in 1985, said that during the early years of his life, he would spend many hours at the northeast corner of Watt and El Camino avenues.
“(Tower) was about a half an hour walk from my house and it was one of the first places I could get away from my parents and they wouldn’t know where I was going,” Scott said. “This was a pretty happening corner when I was growing up. When I was younger, about 12 years, I started coming up here on my own. Before that, my parents came up here bowling at least once a week and I was one of the 5 to 6-year-old rug rats running amuck all around the bowling alley. I learned how to play pinball from guys who smoked cigars and still played pool in the smoky room there (at Country Club Lanes). But when I was a little older, I came up here and Tower Books was here. I was a huge, veracious reader and I would come up here and spend hours. (Tower Books) was like an intellectual haven for me.”
Scott also remembers the Tower Posters store, which operated in the same location where Tower Video later opened.
“(Tower Posters) was my first head shop experience,” Scott said. “My parents were like, ‘We got to get out of here.’ But all I noticed was the rock and roll pins that people could buy.”
And in speaking about the Watt Avenue Tower Records, Scott said, “This record store was where I bought my very first album with my very own money. The album was ‘Fragile’ (by the English progressive rock band, Yes). It was years, of course, after the album came out (in 1971). I had learned most of my music from the radio. I would fall asleep listening to KZAP. I was very sad to see when Tower went away. That is where I discovered music.”
Among the younger people interviewed for this article was Adrian McCoy, a 2003 graduate of Mira Loma High School.
McCoy, who began shopping at both the Tower Records and Tower Books on Watt Avenue in about 1995, said that his favorite CD, which he purchased at this Tower Records location, was “Issues” by the nu metal band, Korn.
Jeremy Peckham, a 1992 graduate of El Camino High, also shared his north area Tower Records-related memories.
“The first record my mom brought home for me in a yellow (and red Tower Records) bag was Devo’s ‘Freedom of Choice’ and a few miscellaneous 45s,” Peckham said. “The next records that I got were Quiet Riot’s ‘Metal Health,’ Def Leppard’s ‘Pyromania,’ and then all these different types of Beatles records.”
Certainly, based on the recollections of the few people who shared their memories for this article, the north area Tower businesses may be gone, but they are certainly not forgotten.