Walter Yetnikoff, who led CBS Data in the course of the increase years of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and lived the intercourse, medication and rock ’n’ roll life extra indulgently than lots of his stars did, died on Monday at a hospital in Bridgeport, Conn. He was 87.
His spouse, Lynda Yetnikoff, mentioned the trigger was most cancers.
Mr. Yetnikoff was some of the highly effective, insatiable and abrasive figures in music within the years simply earlier than the digital revolution upended the enterprise.
He was amongst a small group of highly effective executives who formed the report enterprise within the rock period, together with Clive Davis (who led Columbia Data and based Arista Data), David Geffen of Asylum and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic. He strode by means of these heady days of hit information brashly, licentiously and, by his personal admission, usually drunk or drug-addled.
Although he by no means claimed to have a lot of an ear for music, he was adept at pacifying the celebrities on his roster — who along with Mr. Jackson included Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand and Billy Joel — and at outmaneuvering opponents and perceived enemies, no less than into the late Nineteen Eighties.
Then got here a tough fall.
In 1990, Mr. Yetnikoff, having offended too many individuals along with his outrageous conduct, was dismissed by Sony, the corporate that at his urging had purchased CBS Data solely three years earlier. He had gone into rehab in 1989 and kicked the booze and medicines that had been his roughly each day weight-reduction plan all through his reign, however getting clear didn’t make him any extra tolerable.
“I’d go into conferences and ask individuals to carry palms and say the serenity prayer,” he instructed The New York Occasions in 2004, in an interview occasioned by the publication of his eyebrow-raising autobiography, “Howling on the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Extra,” written with David Ritz.
Tommy Mottola, as soon as a good friend and later, as Mr. Yetnikoff’s successor at CBS Data, considered as an enemy, put it this manner in his personal autobiography, “Hitmaker: The Man and His Music” (2013): “The remedy middle had eliminated the alcohol and medicines from Walter’s life — however not the underlying issues that Walter had been utilizing them to anesthetize.”
Walter Roy Yetnikoff was born on Aug. 11, 1933, in Brooklyn. His father, Max, labored for the town portray hospitals, and his mom, Bella (Zweibel) Yetnikoff, was a bookkeeper. In his e book, Mr. Yetnikoff described a troublesome childhood that included common beatings by his father.
At Brooklyn Faculty he grew uninterested in engineering and switched his research to pre-law. An uncle paid for his first yr at Columbia Regulation Faculty, the place he did nicely sufficient that he earned a scholarship for his subsequent two years. Upon graduating, he joined the agency Rosenman & Colin. The opposite younger attorneys there included Clive Davis, who would go on to have his personal huge affect on the music enterprise.
Mr. Davis quickly moved to the authorized division at Columbia Data, a division of CBS, and in 1961 he introduced Mr. Yetnikoff on board there, luring him with a wage of $10,000 a yr (about $90,000 right now).
“It wasn’t a cash transfer,” Mr. Yetnikoff instructed Rolling Stone in 1988. “I assumed it will be fascinating, thrilling. And I received my very own workplace and a phone with, like, 4 buttons on it.”
His telephone at his outdated job, he mentioned, 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 inside a number of years Mr. Yetnikoff was president of the worldwide division of CBS Data. Mr. Davis misplaced his job in a monetary scandal in 1973, and in 1975 Mr. Yetnikoff primarily changed him, turning into president of the CBS Data Group, which included Columbia and different labels.
In one among his first acts as president, Mr. Yetnikoff considerably reluctantly let Ron Alexenburg, the pinnacle of CBS’s Epic label, signal the Jacksons. Epic had wrested the group from Motown Data (which retained the rights to the group’s unique title, the Jackson 5), and although Mr. Yetnikoff wasn’t overly impressed with the Jacksons’ preliminary albums for Epic, he cultivated a relationship with the group’s key member, Michael, supporting the younger singer’s curiosity in increasing into solo work.
In 1982, that encouragement resulted in “Thriller,” nonetheless one of many top-selling albums in historical past.
Mr. Jackson introduced Mr. Yetnikoff onstage, calling him “the very best president of any report firm,” when he accepted one among eight Grammy Awards on the 1984 ceremony.
“That’s unheard-of,” Mr. Yetnikoff bragged afterward, in line with Fredric Dannen’s e book “Hit Males: Energy Brokers and Quick Cash Contained in the Music Enterprise” (1990). “You don’t carry report executives up on the Grammys, ’trigger nobody’s . I went again to CBS and mentioned, ‘Give me one other $2 million for that!’”
Different megahits launched throughout Mr. Yetnikoff’s tenure included Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” in 1977, the formidable Pink Floyd double album “The Wall” in 1979, Mr. Springsteen’s “Born in the united statesA.” in 1984, Mr. Jackson’s “Unhealthy” in 1987 and a sequence of hit albums by Mr. Joel, together with “The Stranger” (1977) and “Glass Homes” (1980).
Mr. Yetnikoff was not identified to be a discoverer of hits or expertise. His strengths have been in creating relationships with artists, negotiating contracts and easing his stars’ considerations about promotional budgets and a bunch of different issues.
“I generally really feel like their shrink, their rabbi, priest, marriage counselor, banker,” he mentioned in a 1984 interview with The Occasions. “I do know extra about their private lives than I’d wish to know.”
His wild-man persona appeared to develop in proportion to his energy. When he entered the report enterprise, he was an unobtrusive household man. He married June Could Horowitz in 1957, and so they had a son; a second son arrived in 1962.
However his ascension was accompanied by quite a few affairs, which he detailed, alongside along with his substance abuse, in his autobiography. Different report executives from the interval wrote their tales, too, however Mr. Yetnikoff’s was in a category by itself. It was, Forbes mentioned, “a portrait of such out-of-control megalomania that any music govt right now, regardless of how egotistical or ruthless, has to look higher by comparability.”
Many individuals tolerated and even loved him at first, however not everybody.
“He handled artists like they have been objects, not human beings,” Sharon Osbourne, spouse and supervisor of the rocker Ozzy Osbourne, was quoted as saying in Mr. Mottola’s e book. “On prime of that, he was the poster boy for misogyny.”
Within the mid-Nineteen Eighties, Mr. Yetnikoff’s title surfaced in an NBC Information report on payola within the report enterprise that centered on unbiased promoters and their potential ties to organized crime. However CBS got here to his protection, and he survived.
“Did the ‘Nightly Information’ scandal change me?” Mr. Yetnikoff wrote in his e book. “If something, I grew to become extra defiant, extra smug, extra contemptuous of my adversaries.”
He added: “I charged full steam forward. I may need been middle-aged, however I adopted the youthful battle cry of extra intercourse, medication and rock ’n’ roll. I needed extra of every little thing, and I needed it with a vengeance.”
Ultimately, he went too far too usually. The celebrities whose images coated the partitions of his workplace started spurning him. Up-and-coming executives, together with some he had mentored, eclipsed him. In the summertime of 1989, a health care provider instructed him he can be lifeless quickly if he didn’t get clear, which scared him into rehab however didn’t save his profession.
After being ousted at Sony, Mr. Yetnikoff tried making a film about Miles Davis (Wesley Snipes was to star), however the mission collapsed. Then he tried founding his personal report label, Velvel Music Group — Velvel was his Yiddish title — but it surely failed after three years.
“If I had nonetheless been ingesting, I’d have drunk myself to dying,” he wrote of the interval after his fall. “However with out drink or medication to annihilate my true emotions, I had to deal with a situation that had existed for a lot of my grownup life: acute melancholy. Whereas I used to be operating the free world, I might assuage these darkish spells by ranting and raging, by antagonizing associates and turning each day duties into excessive drama. By yelling, I might transfer mountains. All of the sudden there was nobody to yell at.”
Mr. Yetnikoff’s first marriage led to divorce, as did his second, to Cynthia Slamar. He married Lynda Kady in 2007. Along with her, he’s survived by two sons from his first marriage, Michael and Daniel; a sister, Carol Goldstein; and 4 grandchildren.
In his later years, Mr. Yetnikoff typically stored a low profile, volunteering for dependancy and restoration organizations.
Mr. Yetnikoff’s e book features a chapter on a visit he took to the Soviet Union in the summertime of 1987, when Mr. Joel carried out there. He was stunned, he wrote, when he was not acquired there with acclaim and deference. The chapter opens with a sentence that maybe sums up his record-business profession as an entire, a dizzying interval when he let his energy distort his perspective.
“Delusions of grandeur,” he wrote, “are particularly infectious for the semigrand.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.