Walter Yetnikoff, the man who ran CBS Records for two decades during one of its most successful periods died on Sunday August 8th. He was 87 years old. The cause of death was cancer.
Yetnikoff served as CBS Records’ CEO from 1975 to 1990. CBS Records was a record-label conglomerate that housed labels such as Columbia Records, Epic Records, CBS Records International, and Portrait Records. During this tenure had many of the music industry’s top talent under CBS Records including: Michael Jackson, The Jacksons, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Earth, Wind & Fire, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Gloria Estefan, Meat Loaf, and many others.
There were monster albums released during his tenure that sold many copies. This included: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., Billy Joel’s The Stranger.
Famously, Yetnikoff along with Epic Records President Ron Alexenburg lured Michael Jackson and the Jacksons away from Motown.
Yetnikoff originally joined CBS Records in 1962 as an attorney. He became general counsel of the CBS Records law department before becoming Executive Vice President of the CBS Records International label in 1969. He was promoted to President of CBS Records International in 1971 before becoming CEO of CBS Records in 1975. He was appointed CEO by CBS Chief William S. Paley, the father of La Palina Cigars owner Bill Paley.
Yetnikoff served as an Executive Producer for the film Ruthless People.
In 1988, he engineered the sale of CBS Records to Sony Corporation. After allegedly being forced out by Sony in 1990, he attempted he attempted to start a new record label, Velvet Music Company that would fail.
In 2004, he published his autobiography Howl at the Moon, collaborating with David Ritz. It was Ritz who confirmed Yetnikoff’s death.
Throughout his career, Yetnikoff was a ruthless business competitor, butting heads with Warner Brothers and Geffen Records. He lived the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” lifestyle. Yetnikoff was also known for his fierce temper. He also butted heads internally with many at CBS Records, including talent. His personality alienated many and ultimately that led to his parting with Sony.
Allegedly he had threatened to pull all CBS Records talent from MTV when they refused to play Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. At the time MTV was allegedly not blacking Black and R&B artists.
Several in the music industry took to social media to reflect on Yetnikoff.
“Walter Yetnikoff was the man who changed everything at Columbia Records.He engineered the Sony buyout of the label from the CBS corporation and directed the career support of numerous recording artists who would became household names, such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand.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. 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.” – Billy Joel (Facebook)
“Rest in eternal peace, Walter Yetnikoff. Former President/CEO of CBS/Sony Records.”- George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic (Facebook)
The Twitter account of the late Michael Jackson wrote, “RIP Walter Yetnikoff, a titan in the music business. Michael’s friend, confidante and unwavering supporter, Walter used his leverage as head of CBS Records to help Michael smash MTV’s color barrier by forcing the network to play the iconic “Billie Jean” short film. Walter took the groundbreaking step of giving Michael ownership of his masters, unheard of in the business at the time. Walter knew the only way to unleash a special talent like Michael onto the world was to trust the artist to follow his own instincts. As Michael put it, ‘he’s encouraged me to be my own man’ and to do the things that had to be done the way I had to do them.’ Everyone‘s thoughts and prayers go out to Walter’s loved ones.”
Editor’s Note: My father and grandfather owned a limousine company that provided transportation services to CBS Records talent and executives. Both would reflect on Yetnikoff’s temper, but also respected what he did in the music industry.