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Walter Yetnikoff, Combative and Influential Former CBS Records Head, Dead at 87

Larger-than-life music industry mogul worked with Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, among many others

Producer Phil Ramone, president of CBS Records, Walter Yetnikoff and Billy Joel backstage at the Nassau Coliseum on December 11, 1977 Uniondale, New York.

Lestor Cohen/Getty Images

Walter Yetnikoff, who rose from working-class Brooklyn to become the head of CBS Records and became a star as volatile, if not more so, than many of the million-selling artists he signed, died on Monday at age 87. The cause of death was cancer, according to The New York Times

Yetnikoff came into power during the 1970s, as the modern music industry was becoming big business; he prided himself on a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners, booze-for-breakfast style that turned the industry into a series of gladiatorial contests — over artists, hits, headlines, women, and more. “Like me, like all responsible company chiefs, Clive [Davis, another fabled executive] wanted hits and would do whatever it took to get one,” Yetnikoff wrote in his 2004 memoir, Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an age of Excess, penned with help from David Ritz. 

Before his dismissal in 1990, Yetnikoff became a larger-than-life figure in the music industry, infamous and proud of it: “Part of me was consciously creating a ferocious character that the industry would respect,” he wrote in 2004. 

He was known for his close relationships with artists, including Barbra Streisand (“culturally, we come from the same place,” Yetnikoff wrote), Cyndi Lauper (“she’s my buddy,” he said to Rolling Stone, though she also called him a “male chauvinist pig”) and Michael Jackson (Yetnikoff famously fought to get his videos on MTV, which initially only played rock; the Thriller star later called him “the best president of any record company.”)

Yetnikoff was also known for his violent eruptions (“as my prowess increased, my temper shortened… increasingly accustomed to getting my way, [I] blew a gasket when circumstances when against me,” he wrote), his taste for alcohol (“booze was the soul and substance of who I was”) and drugs (“I just wanted to get high and stay high”), and his interest in commercial success over creative pursuits.

While he loved another one of his artists, Bruce Springsteen, Yetnikoff once wrote that the star’s manager, Jon Landau, “drove me up the wall” by offering “endlessly detailed reports on how they mixed [the single] ‘Hungry Heart.’” “I don’t care if they mixed it with an eggbeater,” Yetnikoff remembered retorting. “It’s a hit, and I’m happy.”

Yetnikoff was born August 11th, 1933, in Brooklyn, to a father who painted hospitals and a mother who did bookkeeping. He attended Brooklyn Tech High and then Brooklyn College, working jobs on the side to help pay for textbooks. He decided to go to Columbia Law School because “for good Jewish boys looking to get ahead it was medicine, dentistry, accounting, engineering, or law,” he wrote in Howling at the Moon, and “law seemed the least taxing.” 

Working at a law firm, Yetnikoff met a young Clive Davis, who eventually joined CBS Records’ legal department. In the early Sixties, Davis brought Yetnikoff to CBS as well, offering him a raise of $2,000 a year. “It seemed pretty glamorous,” Yetnikoff told Rolling Stone in 1988. He quickly embraced the prevailing record company ethos of the time, as described to him by his then-boss, Goddard Leiberson: “A serious record man is always looking for… ways to make the artist happy while making our blessed corporate accountants even happier.”

Davis rose within CBS in the mid-Sixties and became increasingly excited about the rock explosion, signing acts like Janis Joplin and Santana and bringing the company a new level of success; Yetnikoff rose as well, taking over the international division in 1969. Davis was fired, accused of mis-using company funds, in 1973, and when Lieberson retired in 1975, Yetnikoff took over as President of CBS Records. In Howling at the Moon, the executive painted this promotion as a turning point: “The appointment went to my head, went to my dick, and over a period of years turned me into a madman.”

Yetnikoff said he became increasingly dependent on substances in part to connect with the artists on his label — “not only was it cool to party with them, hell, it was practically obligatory,” he wrote. In his Rolling Stone interview, he said he saw his role with artists as a mix of “rabbi, priest, guru, banker, for sure, adviser, counselor friend, psychotherapist, marriage counselor, sex counselor, you name it.”

Whether or not the boozy bonding sessions helped, a number of CBS artists released massive albums during Yetnikoff’s tenure, including Springsteen with Born to Run in 1975, Boston’s Boston in 1976, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell in 1977, Jackson with Off the Wall in 1979 and Streisand with Guilty in 1980. 

“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,” Jackson’s estate said in a statement. “It is difficult today to imagine the level of cultural apartheid at the music channels in 1983 when MTV refused to play ‘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.”

Yetnikoff was also relentless in his pursuit of stars, fighting to sign James Taylor, Paul McCartney, and later the Rolling Stones, awarding them a contract that was, at the time, “the richest [deal] in the history of rock,” according to the 2003 book Exploding: The Heights, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group.

CBS poached both Taylor and the Rolling Stones from Warner Music Group labels. The company might have been Yetnikoff’s chief rival — hard to say, because he seemed to enjoy rivalries — during the Seventies and Eighties. He had banners printed reading “Fuck Warner.” (For a time, Yetnikoff also went after Rolling Stone.)  

Yetnikoff’s focus on hits at any price didn’t just mean “going to a war” with another record company; like most labels, he also got CBS involved with independent radio promoters in the late 1970s, a group of men that controlled access to radio stations and required hefty payments to ensure that singles were hits. Indie promoters were later dubbed “the new payola” by NBC Nightly News in the 1980s, and NBC singled out CBS as the company that “did the most business with the independent promoters now under investigation.” 

CBS retaliated, calling NBC’s report a “second-class example of broadcast journalism.” Yetnikoff was adamant in Howling at the Moon that he was “never involved in any wrongdoing.” But he was also unapologetically cynical about the music industry. “The music business — and especially the cutthroat business of generating hits — had always had its shady side,” the CBS head wrote. “What else is new?”   

Howling at the Moon is filled with these matter-of-fact comments about music industry practices. Yetnikoff noted that the predominant philosophy of record companies is “pay the artists as little as you can. Tie up the artist for as long as you can. Recoup as often you can.” 

A few years after the NBC report, the head of CBS checked into rehab and got clean. But his time as a music industry leader was coming to an end. In 1990, CBS and Yetnikoff parted ways. In his memoir, he said the company told him that “many artists” were no longer pleased with him.

Yetnikoff’s subsequent attempts to find footing in Hollywood and the music business didn’t land. In his memoir, he wrote about running a men’s group for other recovering addicts. “On my worst days… I still want to blow the whistle on my adversaries, scream bloody murder, extract my pound of flesh,” he wrote. “… On my best days, I put on my helmet, rev up my Harley and hit the country roads.”

“I’ve been asked to join a couple of biker clubs, but that’s not me,” Yetnikoff added. “I ride alone.”

From Rolling Stone US