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. Cause of death was a recurrence of bladder cancer, according to his wife.
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.
“Bruce and I worked with Walter during his entire CBS/Sony tenure. We couldn’t have had a greater or more effective champion,” Jon Landau, Springsteen’s longtime manager, told Billboard after hearing of Yetnikoff’s passing. “He gave his wholehearted support to everything that Bruce created and what more can any artist and producer ask for? Could he be wild, crazy, and confrontational—you bet. But, more importantly, he was a great friend, he was brilliant, and he was a man of vision. Walter had some very rough personal demons, but he made it to the other side, and went on to have a very successful third act, in his post record industry years. I will remember him as someone who made a meaningful difference in my life, all of it for the better.”
Joel also remembered Yetnikoff as a faithful caretaker of his music. “Walter was a street fighter – a man who didn’t shy away from confrontation with other power players when it came to protecting his artist’s interests,” he said in an email to Billboard. “I will always be eternally grateful to him for ensuring that my song copyrights and publishing rights were returned to me – intact.I loved him as a dear friend and a mentor, in a business where real friendships don’t exist. I owe much of my good fortune to Walter’s stewardship at the Columbia label. I will miss him and the strong life force that he was.”
Yetnikoff 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.
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 and Born in the USA, James Taylor jumped from Warner to Columbia and Labelle hit big with “Lady Marmalade.”
His love for music spanned several different genres. McCready, whose late husband, Roy Wunsch, Yetnikoff named the first president of CBS Nashville, remembers a character who came to Nashville several times a year. “He would go to Tammy Wynette’s for banana pudding. He would ride motorcycles on Larry Gatlin’s farm. He was a huge Willie Nelson fan. He came to Nashville to buy Quonset Hut Studio (later re named Columbia Studio B). He would show up at the Lone Star in New York to see Johnny Paycheck,” she recalls. “He got things done by inspiring people, not be intimidating people, not by being the most powerful person in the world.”
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.
“When he got sober, he was as passionate, generous , funny and kind as when he wasn’t sober, it was a remarkable recovery. He was the same guy with the bad stuff gone,” McCready says. “He was just a beautiful person on the other side of it. I really believe that with all my heart.”
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.”
In a statement, Sony Music Entertainment said, “We are saddened by the news of Walter Yetnikoff’s passing. He was an accomplished executive who played a leading role in the growth of the music industry in the 1970s and 80s, overseeing CBS Records through the development of many iconic artists that continue to shape music and culture. He also was a key player in bringing together Sony and CBS Records, helping create the foundation of today’s Sony Music. His impact on the business, and the legendary music created under his leadership, reverberates to this day.”
The estate of Michael Jackson also said in a statement, “Walter Yetnikoff was a giant in the music industry at a time when it was more fun, more outrageous and complex and extremely less corporate than today, and he was a man for the times. It is difficult today to imagine the level of cultural apartheid at the music channels in 1983 when MTV refused to play Michael Jackson’s short film ‘Billie Jean.’ But Yetnikoff was ferocious on Michael’s behalf and didn’t hesitate to play corporate chicken with the powerful music channel. In short order, ‘Billie Jean’ was added to MTV in heavy rotation, opening the flood gates for Michael’s extraordinary success and also for a whole generation of black artists. Walter forced that to happen, and with that decision, the wall came tumbling down. He also took the groundbreaking step of giving Michael ownership of his masters, unheard of in the business at the time.”
Yetnikoff is survived by his wife Lynda Kady Yetnikoff, and sons Michael and Daniel.
Assistance on this story provided by Melinda Newman.