Record Exec Walter Yetnikoff, Who Oversaw Careers of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen & More, Dies at 87

On August 10, Variety confirmed the death of legendary record executive Walter Yetnikoff at age 87. According to his wife, Lynda, he passed on the evening of August 8. His cause of death is not yet reported, but Yetnikoff had been battling illness for several years.

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The Brooklyn native—who described his childhood at the hand of an abusive father as “extremely painful”— went by the Yiddish nickname Velvel. He attended Brooklyn Technical High School and Brooklyn College, then graduated from Columbia Law School, where he was an editor of the Columbia Law Review. Upon graduation, at the pinnacle of the Cold War in 1956, Yetnikoff served in the United States Army in West Germany. In 1958 he was discharged and took a job with a law firm that represented CBS Records.

By 1961, he joined the legal department of CBS, guiding the transition of CBS records into CBS/Sony—a Japanese joint venture which became highly profitable under Akio Morita and Norio Ohga. In 1971 he was named International President. In the role through 1975, Yetnikoff headed the substantial growth of the company’s overseas operations. In 1972, Goddard Lieberson replaced Clive Davis as President/CEO, and then in 1975, Yetnikoff took his role at the head of the massive music corporation.

From 1975 to 1990, Yetnikoff shaped the history of the modern music business. He oversaw the careers of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, The Rolling Stones. He managed to pull James Taylor and Paul McCartney from their West Coast-based label post at Warner and Capitol/EMI. Yetnikoff led McCartney into his iconic collaboration with Stevie Wonder on “Ebony and Ivory”(1982), and with Michael Jackson on “The Girl Is Mine” (1982) from Thriller. The same pair joined together again in 1983 for “Say Say Say.”

One highlighted anecdote was his radical powerplay in support of the legendary act, Michael Jackson. While promoting Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Yetnikoff coerced MTV into playing the music video on their network. To force their hand, he threatened to withhold all other CBS artists on his star-studded roster.

At the 1984 Grammy Awards, Jackson called Yetnikoff up to the podium, saying he was “the best record company president in the world.” Streisand, too, scored her biggest-selling album under Yetnikoff’s watch, with “Guilty” in 1908, a collaboration with the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. During his reign, CBS sold over 40 million copies of Thriller, 20 million of both Earth, Wind & Fire’s I Am and Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., and 13 million copies of Billy Joel”s The Stranger.

Following Sony’s acquisition of CBS in 1988 for a reported $2 billion, Yetnikoff hired his friend Tommy Mottola as president of domestic operations. In 1990, Yetnikoff stepped down, blaming Mottola and attorney Allen Grubman for his resignation.

Walter Yetnikoff is survived by Lynda, his second wife, and sons Michael and Daniel. More about his life and career is available in an interview with The New York Times or his autobiographyHowling at the Moon.

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