Whether you liked him or not, did not matter at all for he was a dealmaker, legal manipulator. negotiator in the individual who built CBS records to its greatest heights and success!
Walter Yetnikoff, former president of CBS Records and one of the music industry's most towering figures in the 1970s and '80s. Whether it was dealing with Bruce Springsteen, calling Barbra Streisand, or having me in the room with him in his office as he would pick up a call from Michael Jackson with that legendary Cheshire Cat grin that he always had with his small little then cigar he smoked in his mouth or hand, he was a showman.
They said he was crazy, his ways of doing business irrational, bombastic, sometimes way out of the ordinary and very inflammatory in the way he treated or worked with people, but in that world he lived in where fast and furious was not a film with Vince Diesel but but an every day life and death scenario he functioned superbly.
He was the man who got SONY electronics to come in and buy the label from CBS broadcast and with it allow them to reap a windfall of profits beyond anything they could have imagined especially when the world suddenly went from vinyl and cassettes to one of CDs with the profits were four times what the other formats yielded and where at first the artists were still paid as if the music was being released on the basis of the older formats covered in their deals.
I found him to be immensely interesting and acting like a really good friend to me because I was doing the majority of the mixing for CBS records which included epic, Portrait, Columbia and all the associated labels.
He knew he could rely on me and frequently put his arm around me to give me a general pat and tell me what a great job I was doing. At that time it was good because I was only in my late 20s and just learning to make it in the business where everyone I dealt with was much more experienced than me.
His sad Downfall came when Tommy Matola. who he brought in to work with him, sent them to a rehabilitation center To clean up his act from an overindulgence in drugs and at the same time was petitioning to have Walter removed so he could become the new president of CBS records.
It was a very sad thing to see and after the fact Walter and I spoke often because he felt betrayed by someone whom he had embraced. He was actually frightened of Tommy and told me so.
Such was the life in this crazy crazy business, but I will tell you that while people can think and say about him what they will, I saw the kind of orchestrator of talent and sympathetic man who helped artist to survive the surrounding emotional roller coaster to get through the deepest darkest moments and for that I will always be a fan of his.
So today, we say goodbye to a man who spent his life dealing with the insanity of the music industry and the uncertainty of the superstars which caused him to write his book “Howling at the Moon”.
May he rest in peace and may God bless his soul.
Thank you Walter for being in my life early on and giving me a sounding board in an encouraging guiding hand to make it through the early days of this industry. Walter Yetnikoff, eccentric entrepreneur and iconic industry leader, dead at 87 in August 2021.