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Music industry mourns Yetnikoff, larger-than-life head of CBS Records

Grew up in East New York, graduated Brooklyn Tech, Brooklyn College

August 17, 2021 Hillel Italie, Associated Press
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The music industry this week is mourning Walter Yetnikoff, the rampaging, R-rated head of CBS Records who presided over blockbuster releases by Michael Jackson, Billy Joel and many others, who recently died at age 87.

The stocky, bearded Yetnikoff was a onetime lawyer with a sharp mind, an X-rated vocabulary, a big heart, a tin ear, a roving eye and an extraordinary temper, and above all, a kid from Brooklyn whose hunger for recognition and power drove him to excess in every way. 

Yetnikoff, the son of a house painter and a bookkeeper, grew up in East New York to a Jewish family and graduated from Brooklyn Tech and Brooklyn College, where he made Phi Beta Kappa. In 1953,  he entered Columbia Law School and became editor of the law review.

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In “Howling at the Moon,” published in 2004, he described his life as a three-act play: Act 1, “I start to get crazy.” Act 2, “I get crazier.” Act 3, “craziest of all.” He was a born kingpin who helped embody a moment when rock music became big business, embraced and absorbed by corporate America.

“If you are successful — as it should be — you simply have to pay an artist, give them a check for all this money,” he told Rolling Stone in 1988. “It’s my pleasure to give Michael Jackson a big, big check. Number one, it shows that we’re successful. Two, whatever he earned, we earned more.”

He joined CBS as a staff attorney in the early 1960s, was named president of CBS Records International in 1971 and CEO of CBS Records in 1975, after Clive Davis was fired amid allegations of payola and mismanagement of expenses. 

Yetnikoff was a volatile man in a volatile and expansive era; throughout his 15 years on top he competed fiercely with Warner Bros. for industry dominance. Warner had Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and Madonna. CBS had Jackson, Joel, Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen. When Yetnikoff helped convince James Taylor to jump from Warner to CBS, Warner lured Paul Simon away from CBS.

His reign peaked with such mega-sellers as Jackson’s “Thriller,” Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” and Joel’s “52nd Street.” CBS’ revenues more than quadrupled under his watch, from $485 million to over $2 billion, but he also blew a fortune by arranging costly deals for Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and others past their commercial prime.

Yetnikoff feuded with friends and enemies, with other labels and his own company. He called CBS chairman Thomas H. Wyman “Super Goy” and Wyman’s immediate successor, the cost-cutting Laurence A. Tisch, “the evil dwarf.” Paul Simon turned Yetnikoff into a villain in his 1980 film “One Trick Pony,” in which Rip Torn played a boorish record executive. 

Yetnikoff could also be righteous, threatening to boycott MTV and its then-virtually all-white playlist after its initial refusal to air the video of Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and using his own money to buy back Joel’s song catalog from a former producer and give it back to the singer.

When he married Cynthia Slamar, in 1987, Mick Jagger, Streisand and Springsteen were among the guests.

“To Walter — The wildest man north of Asbury Park,” Springsteen once wrote to him. “Thanks for your friendship.”

His downfall came amid a storm of corporate turnover and backstabbing, and Yetnikoff’s personal chaos. By the late 1980s, his marriage to Slamar was collapsing and his treatment for alcoholism had not cleaned up his behavior. He alienated Springsteen and Jackson among others, raged in public against rival mogul David Geffen and exasperated the executives at his new corporate parent, Sony, which had purchased CBS in 1987.

Forced out by Sony in 1990, he tried to make a movie about Miles Davis, and failed. He tried to start a new record company, Velvel Music Group, and failed.

In recent years, he volunteered at addiction recovery centers in New York City. He was married three times and had enough affairs to make friends doubt he could ever commit to one woman. His third marriage, to Lynda Kady, did endure.

When Yetnikoff first joined Columbia Records as an attorney, he was soon assigned to collect $40,000 from Morris Levy, a music entrepreneur notorious for his ties to organized crime. Levy, who struck fear into artists and businesspeople alike, became a friend and even agreed to settle his debt.

“To bright boy Yetnikoff,” Levy wrote, “I’m not paying because I gotta. I’m paying because I wanna. I’d hate to see you in trouble so early in your career. That’ll come later.”

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