Powerful but Corrosive Records Manager Walter Yetnikoff dies at 87


Walter Yetnikoff, who led CBS Records during the boom years of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and lived a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll more tolerant than many of his stars, died Monday at a hospital in Bridgeport, Conn. He was 87 years old.

His wife, Lynda Yetnikoff, said the cause was cancer.

Mr. Yetnikoff was one of music’s most powerful, insatiable and abrasive figures in the years just before the digital revolution took over.

Clive Davis (director of Columbia Records and founder of Arista Records), David Geffen of Asylum and Ahmet Ertegun Atlantic. He passed his dizzying hit days arrogant, immoral, and by his own admission, often drunk or addicted to drugs.

While he never claimed to have a musical ear, he was adept at calming down the stars on his roster – which included Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand and Billy Joel in addition to Mr. Jackson – and outpacing rivals and perceived foes. at least in the late 1980s.

Then came a drastic fall.

In 1990, Mr. Yetnikoff offended too many people with his extreme behavior and was fired by Sony company, which had voluntarily bought CBS Records just three years ago. He went to rehab in 1989 and kicked the booze and drugs that were more or less his daily diet throughout his reign, but getting cleaned up didn’t make him any more bearable.

“I would go to meetings and ask people to hold hands and pray for peace,” he told The New York Times in 2004. meeting resulting from the publication eyebrow-raising autobiography“Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Beast Music Monk in the Age of Extremism,” co-written with David Ritz.

Tommy Mottola, once friend and later seen as foe as Mr. Yetnikoff’s successor at CBS Records, writes in his autobiography “Hitmaker: The Man and His Music” (2013): “The treatment center removed alcohol and drugs from Walter’s life – but not the underlying problems Walter used to numb them.”

Walter Roy Yetnikoff was born on August 11, 1933, in Brooklyn. His father, Max, worked in city painting hospitals, and his mother, Bella (Zweibel) Yetnikoff, was an accountant. In his book, Mr. Yetnikoff described a difficult childhood that included being regularly beaten by his father.

Bored with engineering at Brooklyn College, he turned his education into law. An uncle paid off his first year at Columbia Law School where he did well enough and won a scholarship for the next two years. After graduation he joined the firm of Rosenman & Colin. Among other young lawyers there was Clive Davis, who would have a tremendous impact on the music industry.

Mr. Davis soon moved to the legal department of Columbia Records, a division of CBS, and in 1961 brought Mr. Yetnikoff there and deducted him $10,000 a year (about $90,000 today).

“It wasn’t a money move,” Mr Yetnikoff He told Rolling Stone in 1988. “I thought it would be interesting, exciting. I have my own office and a phone with four buttons on it.”

He said his phone at his old job didn’t have a button.

Mr. Davis and Mr. Yetnikoff’s careers soared together for a while. In 1967, Mr. Davis was chairman of Columbia, and within a few years, Mr. Yetnikoff became chairman of the international division of CBS Records. Mr. Davis lost his job in a financial scandal in 1973, and in 1975 Mr. Yetnikoff essentially replaced him as president of the CBS Records Group, which includes Columbia and other record labels.

In one of his first acts as president, Mr. Yetnikoff, somewhat reluctantly, allowed Ron Alexenburg, head of CBS’s Epic label, to sign the Jacksons. Epic acquired the band from Motown Records (who held the rights to the band’s original name, Jackson 5), and Mr. Yetnikoff developed a relationship with the band, although he wasn’t too impressed with the Jacksons’ debut albums for Epic. key member, Michael, supports the young singer’s interest in solo work.

In 1982, this encouragement resulted in “Thriller,” still one of the best-selling albums in history.

When Mr. Jackson accepted one of eight Grammy Awards at the 1984 ceremony, he brought on stage Mr. Yetnikoff, whom he described as “the best president of any record label”.

According to Fredric Dannen’s book “Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business” (1990), Mr. Yetnikoff later bragged, “This is unheard of.” “You don’t bring record executives to the Grammys because nobody cares. I went back to CBS and said, ‘Give me another $2 million for this.'”

Other megahits during Mr Yetnikoff’s tenure include Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” in 1977, Pink Floyd’s ambitious double album “The Wall” in 1979, and Mr Springsteen’s 1984 “Born in the USA”, A number of hit albums, including Mr Jackson’s “Bad” in 1987 and Mr Joel’s “The Stranger” (1977) and “Glass Houses” (1980).

Mr Yetnikoff was not known as a discoverer of hits or talent. His strengths were in developing relationships with people. artists, negotiating contracts, and alleviating their stars’ concerns about promotional budgets and a host of other things.

“Sometimes I feel like their psychologist, their rabbi, their priest, their marriage counselor, their banker,” she said. 1984 interview with The Times. “I know more about their personal lives than I want to know.”

The wild man personality seemed to grow in proportion to his strength. When he got into the record business, he was an unobtrusive family man. He married June May Horowitz in 1957 and they had a son; a second son arrived in 1962.

But his rise was accompanied by numerous incidents, which he detailed in his autobiography, along with substance abuse. Other record executives of the era also wrote their stories, but Mr. Yetnikoff’s was in a class by itself. it happened, forbes said“A portrait of an out-of-control megalomaniac that any music executive today should look like better in comparison, no matter how selfish or cruel.”

At first, many people tolerated and even enjoyed it, but not everyone.

“He treated artists as if they were objects, not people,” said Sharon Osbourne, wife and manager of rocker Ozzy Osbourne, in Mr. Mottola’s book. “And he was the poster child for misogyny.”

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Yetnikoff’s name surfaced in an NBC News report about payola in the record business focused on independent backers and their possible links to organized crime. But GIS came to his defense, and survived.

“Did the ‘Nightly News’ scandal change me?” Mr Yetnikoff wrote in his book. “If anything, I’ve become more arrogant, more arrogant, more contemptible towards my enemies.”

He added: “Going on full throttle. I may have been middle-aged but I embraced more sex, drugs and the youth battle cry of rock ‘n’ roll. I wanted more of everything and wanted revenge.”

In the end, it’s too often gone too far. Stars whose photos cover the walls of his office began to belittle him. Up-and-coming executives, including some he mentored, eclipsed him. In the summer of 1989, a doctor told him that he would die soon if he wasn’t cleared, which frightened him and sent him to rehab, but it didn’t save his career.

After being sacked at Sony, Mr. Yetnikoff attempted to make a movie about Miles Davis (who was to be starring Wesley Snipes), but the project collapsed. He then tried to start his own record label, Velvel Music Group (named Velvel in Yiddish), but failed three years later.

“If I was still drinking, I would be drunk to death,” he wrote of the period after his fall. “But without booze or drugs to destroy my true feelings, I had to deal with a condition that has existed for most of my adult life: acute depression. While I was running the free world, I was able to calm those dark spells by being angry and raging, pissing off partners and turning daily tasks into high drama. “I can move mountains by shouting. Suddenly there was no one left to shout.”

Mr. Yetnikoff’s first marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage to Cynthia Slamar. He married Lynda Kady in 2007. In addition to him, he survived with two sons, Michael and Daniel, from his first marriage; a sister, Carol Goldstein; and four grandchildren.

In his later years, Mr. Yetnikoff generally kept a low profile, volunteering for addiction and recovery organizations.

Mr. Yetnikoff’s book includes an excerpt from his trip to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1987, where Mr. Joel performed there. He wrote that he was surprised when he was not greeted with applause and respect. The episode opens with a sentence that perhaps sums up his record label career as a whole, a dizzying period when his strength allowed him to distort his perspective.

“Grandom delusions,” he wrote, “are especially contagious to semi-elders.”

Alex Traub contributed to the reporting.


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