Walter Yetnikoff, 1933-2021

The music industry has never known an executive more outrageous—or more influential—and it may never again.

Here’s a special Wednesday installment of the Zogblog in honor of Walter Yetnikoff, one of the most entertaining people I’ve ever interviewed.

The first time I spoke with Walter Yetnikoff, I couldn’t tell whether I was interviewing him or vice versa. We’d just shuffled into the Upper East Side location of the 2nd Avenue Deli, confusingly located on First Avenue, when he started in with the borderline clairvoyant personal questions.

“Are you thinking of getting married?” he asked. I’d recently purchased an engagement ring, and I’m a terrible liar, so I just nodded. It was Passover, we hadn’t even ordered our matzoh yet, but Yetnikoff didn’t pause a moment before offering his thoughts: “Do you have a prenup?”

Yetnikoff passed away yesterday, just shy of his 88th birthday, after a battle with cancer. Since then, memories like the one I’ve just shared have tumbled in from across the music business, which Yetnikoff effectively ruled during his tenure as chief of CBS Records (eventually gobbled up by Sony) through much of the 1970s and all of the 1980s.

In those years, he could be found sporting big sunglasses and even bigger lapels, schmoozing with and battling for a roster of artists that included Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. Yetnikoff was brash and nosy, but somehow still very charming—except when he happened to be suing you (“I was very litigious,” he once told me proudly).

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He managed to antagonize his artists, too, including Jackson. As I wrote in a recent post, Yetnikoff angered the nascent King of Pop in the early 1980s by suing rival label MCA over the release of the E.T. storybook album—a project Jackson had worked on and cherished. “He’s not kissing the monster!” Yetnikoff told Jackson’s lawyer upon seeing an image of him embracing the silver screen alien. “You can tell those fucking guys at MCA to go fuck themselves, they’re not using my artist.”

But Yetnikoff changed his tune following the record-breaking success of Thriller. When MTV refused to play the video for “Billie Jean” because it wasn’t rock music—a clear instance of thinly-veiled racism—Yetnikoff called the network’s “chief schmuck” (his words) and threatened to withhold the audiovisual offerings of the entire CBS roster unless “Billie Jean” aired. MTV caved, making Yetnikoff the unlikely Branch Rickey to Jackson’s music video Jackie Robinson.

The blustery executive also offered Jackson another valuable olive branch: control of his master recordings. It worked. A few months later, at the Grammys, Jackson called his label boss to the podium and dubbed him “the best record company president in the world.”

Yetnikoff famously epitomized an era of excess in the music business, with appetites for sex and drugs that even his most rock-and-roll artists couldn’t top. His outstanding memoir Howling At The Moon, written with David Ritz, depicts Yetnikoff often with something in his glass or up his nose, constantly pursuing women identified by colorful nicknames like Boom Boom.

After confronting his demons and entering recovery in his later years, Yetnikoff still maintained his usual mix of honesty and humor. During an interview for my own Michael Jackson, Inc., I asked him a question about the impact of Jackson’s famous moonwalk in the Motown 25 television special.

“It probably did spike sales,” Yetnikoff told me. “What year was that?”

“1983,” I replied.

His response: “I was drunk.”

The music industry still contains its share of excess, but the modern executive ranks are lighter on tempestuous personalities and heavier on bean-counters. It’s hard to imagine another character quite like him—and, for better or worse, it’s unlikely that a label boss with his demeanor could make it to the top in the current environment.

Yet as abrasive as Yetnikoff could be in his CBS days, he gave his time and energy freely, especially toward the end of his life. He quietly volunteered with addiction recovery organizations, and brought the same generosity to his visits with reporters, leavened by his usual wit.

“We’re running overtime,” he told me, with a grin, after an hour and a half together at the 2nd Avenue Deli. “I’ll start billing you.”

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