Walter Yetnikoff, CBS Records’ kingpin from 1975 to 1990, as famous for guiding the megastar careers of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and Billy Joel as for his profane, sometimes uproarious feuds with Paul Simon, David Geffen and the entirety of Warner Bros. Records, died on Sunday at age 87. He would have turned 88 on Aug. 11.
Yetnikoff’s passing was confirmed by multiple friends and colleagues, including former CBS Records Nashville executive Mary Ann McCready, who received the news from Yetnikoff’s wife Lynda. His cause of death has not been disclosed.
Brash, colorful and self-aggrandizing, with very public addictions to alcohol, cocaine and extramarital affairs, Yetnikoff ushered CBS into selling to Japanese electronics giant Sony in 1987 and was, depending on whose story you believe, the catalyst for breaking MTV’s color line with Michael Jackson’s video “Billie Jean.” He was a workaholic, chain-smoking while working two phones simultaneously, and charmed stars with his humor and intellect: He once impressed Mick Jagger at a Paris wine bar by calculating the Value Added Tax in France on a napkin.
He kept his allies close and had no interest in diplomacy with enemies: He called Jackson “archangel Michael” when Thriller took off, but he referred to his boss, CBS Inc. owner Laurence Tisch, as “The Little Dwarf,” and powerful Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson as “Potted Lieberfarb.” Irving Azoff, the Eagles manager, gave a speech declaring CBS had a drug addict at the helm. “If you just focus on the outrageous things he says and does . . . you miss the man,” David Geffen said in 1986. “Walter is an absolutely honorable man who keeps his word, and that’s more than you can say about the Irving Azoffs of this business.” That was four years before Yetnikoff fell out with Geffen by making crude jokes about his homosexuality.
“I know Walter says he has a deaf ear, but he has vision,” Nona Hendryx, of onetime CBS stars LaBelle, told Billboard in 2004, when Yetnikoff’s biography “Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess” came out. “If he saw talent and value in someone, he could see where it could lead. . . . That’s what’s missing now: the characters and the fun. Sometimes you need to be a little crazy in this business to be successful.”
Born in Brooklyn to a hospital-painter father and a bookkeeper mother, Yetnikoff attended Brooklyn College and worked as a garbage collector and a deliveryman to pay for his books. He attended Columbia Law, which led to his first job as a lawyer, with the firm Rosenman and Colin, where he befriended Harvard-trained attorney Clive Davis. When Davis joined CBS’ legal department, he brought in Yetnikoff as a junior lawyer, “learning the complex contractual lessons of the music business,” as he wrote in his memoir.
Back then, CBS owned Columbia, one of the most powerful record labels, with established pop stars like Andy Williams and Tony Bennett and talents like Miles Davis and Dylan. Moving up to Columbia Records president, Davis brought in Santana, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin and many others, and as CBS’ revenues increased from $485 million to $2 billion, Yetnikoff’s record-executive career took off, and “so did my sexual hunger,” he wrote. One of his many affairs was with a coke addict he called Boom Boom.
When Lieberson departed, CBS made Yetnikoff president and CEO in 1975. “The appointment went to my head, went to my dick, and over a period of years turned me into a madman,” he wrote. “The more powerful I became, the greater my rewards, the deeper my lunacy.”
The artist whose success Yetnikoff would come to be most closely associated with was Jackson. Having signed with his brothers as The Jacksons to CBS subsidiary Epic in 1975, Michael resumed his solo career (which had floundered somewhat at Motown in the mid-’70s) with 1979’s Off the Wall album — a move to disco that proved wildly successful and established the frontman as a best-selling solo superstar. That, of course, would prove just to be the opening act for what came next: Thriller, the 1982 game-changer that defined popular music in the 1980s, went on to be the best-selling non-compilation album of all time, and is often credited with helping to revive a then-dormant music industry.
The oft-told story is that Yetnikoff played hardball with MTV — who at the time would not play music videos from Black pop and R&B stars, claiming they didn’t fit the channel’s rock format — and essentially forced them to play the clip for Jackson’s “Billie Jean” by threatening to pull all future videos from CBS Records artists from the channel if they didn’t put it into rotation. The exact degree and nature of his demands remain unclear; then-MTV svp Les Garland told Billboard in 2009 that Yetnikoff “got more upset because we didn’t play [Columbia artists] Willie Nelson or Barbra Streisand.”
Regardless, MTV ultimately acquiesced, and Jackson became the biggest star of the channel’s early years in short order — elevating both MTV and Jackson to defining cultural touchstones of the era in the process, and helping Thriller go 33x platinum.
During Yetnikoff’s tenure at CBS, Springsteen put out Born to Run, James Taylor jumped from Warner to Columbia and Labelle hit with “Lady Marmalade.” Big-bearded and open-shirted, Yetnikoff also declared war on Warner and was reported to have stopped an industry investigation of Mob-connected independent radio promoters who muscled hits onto the airwaves. One of the central figures, Fred DiSipio, was a Yetnikoff friend. “I like street characters,” he wrote.
Yetnikoff is also credited with pushing Spanish pop superstar Julio Iglesias to sing more in English, which eventually led to 1984’s multi-platinum 1100 Bel Air Place and its hit singles “All of You” (with Diana Ross) and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (with Willie Nelson). “You’re destroying my playboy with this cowboy!” Yetnikoff once remarked on the Willie duet, according to artist/producer Albert Hammond in Decoding “Despacito”: An Oral History of Latin Music, by Billboard journalist Leila Cobo.
In 1987, Yetnikoff used his longtime friendship with top Sony execs Akio Morita and Norio Ohga to expand the company’s CBS investment into a multibillion-dollar sale, reportedly bringing him roughly $20 million. By then, though, some of his many enemies were planning his downfall.
In the early ’90s, Yetnikoff’s Sony protégé, former artist manager Tommy Mottola, formed an alliance with rivals such as Geffen and influential music-business attorney Allen Grubman. Together, they pushed Springsteen, Jackson and other stars away from Yetnikoff and made personal connections with Sony leadership. It didn’t help that Yetnikoff was distracted with sex and drugs. When Sony’s Ohga put him on sabbatical and pressured him to cut off his contract, he told his longtime friend: “I’m sorry, Walter, but this hurts me more than it hurts you.”
In 1996, Yetnikoff formed Velvel Records — named after an old nickname given to him by his grandmother — with a musically diverse roster and an eye towards independent operations, but the label failed to find its footing and sold to Koch Entertainment in 1999. He also focused on getting clean and sober, first with transcendental meditation, then via 12-step programs, which prompted him to work on making amends.
In 2004, he acknowledged the record industry had left him behind.
“To work in the business’ corporate atmosphere now?” he told Billboard. “Oh, God, I couldn’t survive.”
Yetnikoff is survived by his wife Lynda Kady Yetnikoff, and sons Michael and Daniel.