Former CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff Dead At 87
Walter Yetnikoff, the former CBS Records president who may have been the most powerful person in the music business in the closing years of the 20th century, has died. Yetnikoff helped sell megastars like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel to the world, and he took credit for integrating MTV by refusing to give the network any videos from CBS artists unless they played Jackson’s “Beat It” video. Billboard reports that Yetnikoff died on Sunday, and no cause of death has been reported. He was 87.
Yetnikoff grew up in Brooklyn, and he studied law at Columbia. After serving in the Army, Yetnikoff became a lawyer for CBS Records in the early ’60s. There, he worked under Clive Davis, who also got his start as a lawyer for CBS. Yetnikoff negotiated the merger between CBS and Sony, and he took over as president of CBS in 1975.
Under Yetnikoff’s leadership, CBS released insanely successful blockbusters like Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA. During that time, Yetnikoff cultivated a reputation as a loud, snarling, hard-partying power broker, and he launched feuds with people like David Geffen and Paul Simon. In 1990, Yetnikoff left CBS, blaming former protege Tommy Mottola for pushing him out.
Yetnikoff’s exploits in the music business are chronicled in his own candid 2004 memoir Howling At The Moon and in Fredric Dannen’s great 1991 book Hit Men: Power Brokers And Fast Money Inside The Music Business. He was a larger-than-life character and a symbol of an era of past excesses, and people like that simply don’t exist in the music industry anymore.