Remembering Walter Yetnikoff: Record Exec Dies at 87

Walter Yetnikoff

On August 10, 2021, the death of Walter Yetnikoff took the music industry by storm when David Ritz announced it. Yetnikoff was once at the peak of his career as a record executive, negotiating multi-million dollar deals with music labels from rock and roll and punk to country, but he fell from grace and never found his way back up again. The man was always seeking power which he attained. But it was all in vain, seeing that it only alienated him from friends, family, and business associates. As we celebrate the life of Yetnikoff, let’s take a moment to see how he achieved the title of president of CBS Records.

Pushed to Succeed

According to The Los Angeles Times, Yetnikoff was born to Max and Bella on August 11, 1933. His father worked as a painter in hospitals while his mother was a bookkeeper. The record executive was raised in Brownsville, and the family had to live with relatives in a small house where life was tough. Yetnikoff disclosed that his father abused him, going as far as banging his head against a wall and kicking him out in the street when he was only five. Being the firstborn son, he was the hope that Bella was holding on to, to pluck the family out of the glaring poverty they had grown accustomed to, so she pushed him to excel. However, while Bella worshipped money, the executive was more interested in gaining power. Luckily, they two usually go hand in hand.

Despite the situation back home, Yetnikoff worked hard in school; he attended Brooklyn Tech High School before proceeding to Brooklyn College. He was a bright boy who graduated within three years and, according to The New York Times, won an academic scholarship to Columbia University. The late record executive said that it was the least taxing of the career choices he had at the time. After completing his law degree, Yetnikoff got a job as a junior litigator at Rosenman and Colin law firm, where he earned $8,000. However, for Yetnikoff, being a junior litigator at a barely known firm was not enough for an ambitious young man. Fortunately, fate connected him to his destiny in the entertainment industry through a former colleague, Clive Davis.

Joining CBS Records

Although Bella wanted her son to make millions, Yetnikoff was not interested in money. He told Rolling Stone that even joining the record business was a pure accident. He was sent to the CBS Records Building to search for files. On arrival, Yetnikoff was captivated by the bevy of beautiful girls since it was around Christmas and the office had thrown a party. By then, Davis had become the general counsel at CBS Records, and after seeing his former colleague at the party, Davis offered him a job. Although the pay would be $10,000, a difference of only $2,000 from his junior litigator salary, Yetnikoff saw the power that came with working at the records office. He would not have to share an office, and he would get a telephone with buttons that excited young Yetnikoff enough to accept the offer in 1962.

Among his first assignments was to collect $40,000 debt from Morris Levy, an entrepreneur with ties to organized crime. Yetnikoff managed to get Levy to settle his debt, but the music entrepreneur wrote that he only paid because he did not want the young executive to get into trouble that early in his career. That was the beginning of a series of wins for Yetnikoff. According to US News, by 1971, Yetnikoff was the president of CBS Records International. In 1975, he became the CEO of CBS Records, replacing Davis, who was fired for allegations of mismanagement. Yetnikoff is also the man who brought on Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, and Michael Jackson to CBS Records. He oversaw the production of the “Thriller” album, and for decades it was the best-selling album of all time until it was overtaken by “Greatest Hits” by The Eagles in 2018, which probably made Jackson turn in his grave. Yetnikoff was constantly under pressure from Jackson, saying that the King of Pop would call him at 2 am whenever Jackson’s records slipped from the top spot, telling Yetnikoff to do something about it.

Going Downhill

Maybe it is such pressure that pushed Yetnikoff to start taking drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. During his reign as the president of CBS Records from 1975 to 1990, drugs, beautiful women, and alcohol were readily available. He revealed that he would wake up from his “coma” at around 8 am and within an hour, half a bottle of vodka would be in his body. He would get in the office at noon, and the steward would take cocktails to him. His bosses knew what he was up to because even during meetings, he was barely coherent, but they kept sucking up to him because they made him money.

He is reputed to grow the company’s annual revenue from $485 million to $2 billion. The bosses kept him around because, as Yetnikoff revealed, the more money they paid him, the crazier he became and the more he would make for them. Eventually, he oversaw the deal of Sony buying CBS Records for $2 billion and was compensated $20 million as a bonus. On September 6, 1990, The Washington Post published that Yetnikoff had stepped down as the CEO but would remain a consultant. It was reported that the record executive had taken a sabbatical leave, but in truth, Sony had fired him. One music lawyer from Los Angeles, David Braun, said that Yetnikoff had gotten lost in the fantasy of his job, power, and ability to control a significant part of pop culture. In the end, the power he had been seeking made him so arrogant that he lost his job and close confidants. Yetnikoff, however, tried to mend his ways by checking into rehab immediately after being fired and after hibernating for three years, re-emerged in 1993 to produce a film, “Million Dollar Lips,” that would cost him $1 million. But the attempt to make the movie was unsuccessful, so he settled for a book, a memoir “Howling at the Moon,” where he detailed his life as a record executive. He chose to focus on sex, drugs, and rock and roll life, the bits he will forever be known for now that they are on paper.

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