Steve Popovich, a veteran music industry executive who played a key role in Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" as well as the careers of the Jackson 5, Cheap Trick, Boston and many others, died Wednesday morning at his apartment in Murfreesboro, Tenn., the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. He was 68.
A cause of death has not been determined, his son Steve Popovich Jr. said.
Popovich ran Cleveland International Records and was based in the city for much of his career. The Plain Dealer described him as "a music-industry insider but also a working-class maverick who worked outside the corporate system.
Meat Loaf came to Popovich's attention in the 1970s after other record companies had passed on giving the singer a shot. Sensing potential, Popovich released "Bat Out of Hell" through Cleveland International in 1977 and worked for more than a year to make it a hit. His persistence paid off: The album, whch included the single "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," went on to sell more than 14 million copies in the U.S. alone.
"Every major label passed on Bat Out of Hell before Cleveland International picked it up," Popovich said in 2002. "It was the day and age of the wimpy-looking, Peter Frampton types. Then here comes Meat Loaf, this huge guy with an amazing voice."
The album was distributed by the Epic division of CBS Records, which later became part of Sony. In 1995, Popovich and his former partners sued Sony for unpaid "Bat Out of Hell" royalties; the case was settled out of court for nearly $7 million.
As part of the settlement, Sony was required to place the Cleveland International logo on reissues but failed to do so. Popovich sued again and was awarded another $5 million in damages in 2005.
Born in Nemacolin, Pa., Popovich moved to Cleveland as a teen and got his start in the music industry playing bass in the band the Twilighters and unloading trucks at a local Columbia Records warehouse. He worked his way up the ranks through Columbia's promotions department and went on to beomce vp promotions for the label's parent CBS Records.
In 1975, after the Jackson 5 left Motown, Popovich signed them to Epic Records.
"You're trying to evaluate if the best part of somebody's career is ahead of him or behind him," he once said. "Sometimes you're right, and sometimes you're wrong. With the Jacksons, we were right."
He left CBS a year later to launch Cleveland International, which put out recordings by Ronnie Spector and Ian Hunter, among others. Popovich also exec produced Frankie Yankovic's 1985 album, "70 Years of Hits With Frank Yankovic," the first to win a Grammy in the best polka recording category.
In 1986, he moved to Nashville to become senior vp at Polygram Records, working with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, but returned to Cleveland 10 years later.
Over his career, Popovich also played a key role in the careers of Boston, Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent.
"My dad didn't get into the music business for the money or the fashion, obviously," Steve Popovich Jr. told the Plain Dealer. "He was in it because he was a fan of music and had an undeniable passion for a lot of genres."
He had recently moved to Tennessee to be near his son's family.