Walter Yetnikoff, Powerful but Abrasive Record Executive, Dies at 87

NYT Music

Walter Yetnikoff, who led CBS Records during the boom years of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and lived the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll life more indulgently than many of his stars did, died on Monday at a hospital in Bridgeport, Conn. He was 87.

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 upended the business.

He was among a small group of powerful executives who shaped the record business in the rock era, including Clive Davis (who led Columbia Records and founded Arista Records), David Geffen of Asylum and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic. He strode through those heady days of hit records brashly, licentiously and, by his own admission, often drunk or drug-addled.

Though he never claimed to have much of an ear for music, he was adept at pacifying the stars on his roster — who in addition to Mr. Jackson included Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand and Billy Joel — and at outmaneuvering competitors and perceived enemies, at least into the late 1980s.

Then came a hard fall.

In 1990, Mr. Yetnikoff, having offended too many people with his outrageous behavior, was dismissed by Sony, the company that at his urging had bought CBS Records only three years earlier. He had gone into rehab in 1989 and kicked the booze and drugs that had been his more or less daily diet throughout his reign, but getting clean didn’t make him any more tolerable.

“I would go into meetings and ask people to hold hands and say the serenity prayer,” he told The New York Times in 2004, in an interview occasioned by the publication of his eyebrow-raising autobiography, “Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess,” written with David Ritz.

Tommy Mottola, once a friend and later, as Mr. Yetnikoff’s successor at CBS Records, viewed as an enemy, put it this way in his own autobiography, “Hitmaker: The Man and His Music” (2013): “The treatment center had removed the alcohol and drugs from Walter’s life — but not the underlying problems that Walter had been using them to anesthetize.”

Walter Roy Yetnikoff was born on Aug. 11, 1933, in Brooklyn. His father, Max, worked for the city painting hospitals, and his mother, Bella (Zweibel) Yetnikoff, was a bookkeeper. In his book, Mr. Yetnikoff described a difficult childhood that included regular beatings by his father.

At Brooklyn College he grew bored with engineering and switched his studies to pre-law. An uncle paid for his first year at Columbia Law School, where he did well enough that he earned a scholarship for his next two years. Upon graduating, he joined the firm Rosenman & Colin. The other young lawyers there included Clive Davis, who would go on to have his own enormous influence on the music business.

Mr. Davis soon moved to the legal department at Columbia Records, a division of CBS, and in 1961 he brought Mr. Yetnikoff on board there, luring him with a salary of $10,000 a year (about $90,000 today).

“It wasn’t a money move,” Mr. Yetnikoff told Rolling Stone in 1988. “I thought it would be interesting, exciting. And I got my own office and a telephone 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 ascended in tandem. By 1967, Mr. Davis was president of Columbia, and within a few years 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 president, Mr. Yetnikoff somewhat reluctantly let Ron Alexenburg, the head of CBS’s Epic label, sign the Jacksons. Epic had wrested the group from Motown Records (which retained the rights to the group’s original name, the Jackson 5), and though Mr. Yetnikoff wasn’t overly impressed with the Jacksons’ initial albums for Epic, he cultivated a relationship with the group’s key member, Michael, supporting the young singer’s interest in expanding into solo work.

In 1982, that encouragement resulted in “Thriller,” still one of the top-selling albums in history.

Mr. Jackson brought Mr. Yetnikoff onstage, calling him “the best president of any record company,” when he accepted one of eight Grammy Awards at the 1984 ceremony.

“That’s unheard-of,” Mr. Yetnikoff bragged afterward, according to Fredric Dannen’s book “Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business” (1990). “You don’t bring record executives up at the Grammys, ’cause no one’s interested. I went back to CBS and said, ‘Give me another $2 million for that!’”

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

Mr. Yetnikoff was not known to be a discoverer of hits or talent. His strengths were in developing relationships with artists, negotiating contracts and easing his stars’ concerns about promotional budgets and a host of other things.

“I sometimes feel like their shrink, their rabbi, priest, marriage counselor, banker,” he said in a 1984 interview with The Times. “I know more about their personal lives than I’d like to know.”

His wild-man persona seemed to grow in proportion to his power. When he entered the record business, he was an unobtrusive family man. He married June May Horowitz in 1957, and they had a son; a second son arrived in 1962.

But his ascension was accompanied by numerous affairs, which he detailed, along with his substance abuse, in his autobiography. Other record executives from the period wrote their stories, too, but Mr. Yetnikoff’s was in a class by itself. It was, Forbes said, “a portrait of such out-of-control megalomania that any music executive today, no matter how egotistical or ruthless, has to look better by comparison.”

Many people tolerated and even enjoyed him at first, but not everyone.

“He treated artists like they were objects, not human beings,” Sharon Osbourne, wife and manager of the rocker Ozzy Osbourne, was quoted as saying in Mr. Mottola’s book. “On top of that, he was the poster boy 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 ties to organized crime. But CBS came to his defense, and he survived.

“Did the ‘Nightly News’ scandal change me?” Mr. Yetnikoff wrote in his book. “If anything, I became more defiant, more arrogant, more contemptuous of my adversaries.”

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

Eventually, he went too far too often. The stars whose photographs covered the walls of his office began spurning him. Up-and-coming executives, including some he had mentored, eclipsed him. In the summer of 1989, a doctor told him he would be dead soon if he didn’t get clean, which scared him into rehab but didn’t save his career.

After being ousted at Sony, Mr. Yetnikoff tried making a movie about Miles Davis (Wesley Snipes was to star), but the project collapsed. Then he tried founding his own record label, Velvel Music Group — Velvel was his Yiddish name — but it failed after three years.

“If I had still been drinking, I’d have drunk myself to death,” he wrote of the period after his fall. “But without drink or drugs to annihilate my true feelings, I had to cope with a condition that had existed for much of my adult life: acute depression. While I was running the free world, I could assuage those dark spells by ranting and raging, by antagonizing associates and turning daily tasks into high drama. By yelling, I could move mountains. Suddenly there was no one to yell at.”

Mr. Yetnikoff’s first marriage ended in divorce, as did his second, to 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; a 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 took to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1987, when Mr. Joel performed there. He was surprised, he wrote, when he was not received there with acclaim and deference. The chapter opens with a sentence that perhaps sums up his record-business career as a whole, a dizzying period when he let his power distort his perspective.

“Delusions of grandeur,” he wrote, “are especially infectious for the semigrand.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.


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