Powerful but abrasive archives director Walter Yetnikoff dies at 87

Walter Yetnikoff, who ran CBS Records during the boom years of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and lived the life of sex, drugs, and ...


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

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

Mr. Yetnikoff was one of the most powerful, insatiable and abrasive figures in music in the years just before the digital revolution disrupted the business.

He was one of a small group of powerful leaders who shaped the recording industry in the rock age, including Clive Davis (who ran Columbia Records and founded Arista Records), David Geffen of Asylum and Ahmet Ertegun of the Atlantic. He went through those heady days of brash, licentious and, by his own admission, hit records often drunk or drugged.

While he never claimed to have much of a musical ear, he was adept at appeasing the stars on his roster – who, in addition to Mr. Jackson, included Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, and Billy Joel – and outwitting them. competitors and perceived enemies, at least until the late 1980s.

Then came a sudden fall.

In 1990, Mr. Yetnikoff, having offended too many people with his outrageous behavior, was fired by Sony, the company which, at his request, had bought CBS Records just three years earlier. He had entered rehab in 1989 and had given up on the alcohol and drugs that had been his more or less daily diet throughout his reign, but cleansing himself didn’t make him more tolerable.

“I would go to meetings and ask people to hold hands and say the Serenity Prayer,” he told the New York Times in 2004, in a meeting caused by the publication of his frowning autobiography, “Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Tycoon in an Age of Excess,” written with David Ritz.

Tommy Mottola, once a friend and later, as a successor to Mr. Yetnikoff at CBS Records, considered an enemy, put it this way in his own autobiography, “Hitmaker: The Man and His Music” (2013): “The treatment center had taken the alcohol and drugs out of Walter’s life – but not the underlying issues that Walter was using them to numb them.

Walter Roy Yetnikoff was born on August 11, 1933 in Brooklyn. Her father, Max, worked for the city’s painting hospitals and her mother, Bella (Zweibel) Yetnikoff, was an accountant. In his book, Mr. Yetnikoff described a difficult childhood that included regular beatings from his father.

At Brooklyn College, he got bored of engineering and moved on to pre-law. An uncle paid his freshman year at Columbia Law School, where he did well enough to get a scholarship for his next two years. After graduating, he joined Rosenman & Colin. Other young lawyers there included Clive Davis, who was to have his own huge influence on the music industry.

Mr. Davis quickly joined the legal department of Columbia Records, a division of CBS, and in 1961 he hired Mr. Yetnikoff there, attracting him with a salary of $ 10,000 a year (approximately $ 90,000 today ).

“It was not a movement of money”, Mr. Yetnikoff tell Rolling Stone in 1988. “I thought it would be interesting, exciting. And I have my own desk and a phone with, like, four buttons on it.

His phone at his old job, he said, had no buttons.

For a time, the careers of Mr. Davis and Mr. Yetnikoff progressed in tandem. In 1967, Mr. Davis was president of Columbia, and a few years later, Mr. Yetnikoff was president 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, becoming president of the CBS Records Group, which included Columbia and other labels.

In one of his first acts as chairman, Mr. Yetnikoff somewhat reluctantly let Ron Alexenburg, head of CBS’s Epic label, sign the Jacksons. Epic had wrested the band from Motown Records (which retained the rights to the band’s original name, the Jackson 5), and although Mr. Yetnikoff was not too impressed with the Jackson’s early albums for Epic, he maintained a relationship with the group. key member, Michael, supporting the young singer’s interest in developing into solo work.

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

Mr. Jackson brought Mr. Yetnikoff on stage, calling him “the best president of all record labels,” when he accepted one of eight Grammy Awards at the 1984 ceremony.

“It’s unheard of,” Mr. Yetnikoff later boasted, according to Fredric Dannen’s book “Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business” (1990). “You don’t bring up record directors at the Grammys because nobody’s interested. I went back to CBS and said, ‘Give me 2 million more for that!’ “

Other mega-hits released during Mr. Yetnikoff’s tenure include “Bat Out of Hell” by Meat Loaf in 1977, Pink Floyd’s ambitious double album “The Wall” in 1979, “Born in the USA” by Mr. Springsteen in 1984, “Bad” by Mr. Jackson in 1987 and a series of successful albums by Mr. Joel, including “The Stranger” (1977) and “Glass Houses” (1980).

Mr. Yetnikoff was not known to be a discoverer of success or talent. His strengths were in developing relationships with artists, negotiating contracts and allaying the worries of its stars about promotional budgets and a host of other things.

“I sometimes have the impression of being their shrink, their rabbi, priest, marriage counselor, banker”, he declared in a 1984 interview with time. “I know more about their personal life than I would like to know. “

His wild man character seemed to grow in proportion to his power. When he entered the recording world, he was a discreet 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 many adventures, which he detailed, as well as his drug addiction, in his autobiography. Other record directors of the time also wrote their stories, but Mr. Yetnikoff’s was in a class of its own. It was, Forbes said, “a portrayal of such uncontrollable megalomania that any musical framework today, no matter how selfish or ruthless, must be better in comparison.”

A lot of people tolerated it and even liked it at first, but not everyone.

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

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Yetnikoff’s name surfaced in an NBC News report on Payola in the record business that focused on independent promoters and their possible links to organized crime. But CBS came to his defense, and he survived.

“Has the ‘Nightly News’ scandal changed me? Mr. Yetnikoff wrote in his book. “If anything, I have become more defiant, more arrogant, more contemptuous of my opponents. “

He added: “I charged at full steam. I might have been middle aged, but I adopted the youthful war cry of more sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. I wanted more of everything, and I wanted it with a vengeance.

Finally, he has gone too far too often. The stars whose photographs covered the walls of his office started pushing him away. Promising executives, some of whom he had mentored, eclipsed him. In the summer of 1989, a doctor told him he would die soon if he didn’t cleanse himself, which scared him into rehab but didn’t save his career.

After being ousted from Sony, Mr. Yetnikoff tried to make a film about Miles Davis (Wesley Snipes was supposed to star), but the project fell apart. Then he tried to found his own record company, Velvel Music Group – Velvel was his Yiddish name – but that failed after three years.

“If I had been drinking again, I would have been drunk to death,” he wrote of the period after his fall. “But without drinks or drugs to quash my true feelings, I had to deal with a condition that had existed for much of my adult life: acute depression. While I ruled the free world, I could appease these dark spells by screaming and raging, annoying associates, and turning daily chores into drama. By shouting, I could move mountains. Suddenly there was no one to yell at.

Mr. Yetnikoff’s first marriage ended in divorce, as did his second, with Cynthia Slamar. He married Lynda Kady in 2007. In addition to her, he is survived by two sons from his first marriage, Michael and Daniel; one 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 a chapter on a trip he made to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1987, when Mr. Joel performed there. He was astonished, he wrote, not to be received there with acclamation and deference. The chapter opens with a sentence that perhaps sums up his entire recording career, a dizzying period when he let his power distort his point of view.

“The madness of grandeur,” he writes, “is particularly contagious for the semi-grown-up. “

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Powerful but abrasive archives director Walter Yetnikoff dies at 87
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