(CelebrityAccess) — Walter Yetnikoff, who famously led CBS Records during its heydey in the 1980s and helped to lay the groundwork for the modern label giant Sony Music died on Sunday. He was 87.
According to Variety, his wife Lynda confirmed his passing to friends. A cause of death was not provided but the publication noted that he had been suffering from an illness for several years.
A native of Brooklyn raised in a troubled home in which Yetnikoff said he was physically abused by his father, he attended the prestigious Brooklyn Technical High School and later graduated magna cum laude at Brooklyn College in 1953.
He next attended Columbia Law School, where he served as editor of the Columbia Law Review and later did a stint in the military after graduation.
After discharge, he joined Rosenman, Colin, Kaye, Petschek and Freund, which represented CBS, and later joined the broadcaster’s CBS Records as a staff attorney at the request of Clive Davis, who also formerly worked at Rosenman & Colin.
After serving as general counsel of the CBS Records law department he was named as Executive Vice President of the label in 1969 and helped to form a partnership between CBS and Sony in what was one of the first major collaborations between corporate America and Japan.
In 1975, he was promoted to President of CBS Records and oversaw a golden era at the label that included signing artists such as Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, the Bee Gees, and Stevie Wonder.
Yetnikoff gained a reputation for putting the artist first, helping to break color barriers for Michael Jackson with the release of his hit ‘Billie Jean’ and using mafia-like tactics that included making physical threats to former manager Artie Ripp in helping Billy Joel to reacquire rights to his songwriting catalog, which was recounted in Paul Crowder’s 2010 documentary film “Last Play At Shea.”
In 1988, he brokered a $2 billion dollar deal to sell CBS Records to Sony, helping to lay the foundation for the modern label behemoth Sony Music Group.
However, by 1990, his drug and alcohol abuse and his abrasive behavior became too much for his colleagues and he was forced out of Sony Music.
“If I had still been drinking, I’d have drunk myself to death,” Yetnikoff wrote in Howling at the Moon, his 2004 autobiography. “But without drink or drugs to annihilate my true feelings, I had to cope with a condition that had existed for much of my adult life: acute depression. While I was running the free world, I could assuage those dark spells by ranting and raging, by antagonizing associates and turning daily tasks into high drama. By yelling, I could move mountains. Suddenly there was no one to yell at.”
Following his exit, he tried unsuccessfully to launch a Miles Davis biopic and launched his own independent label, Velvel Music Group, but the venture failed to take off.
In his personal life, Yetnikoff was known for his philanthropic work, volunteering for Monsignor Vincent E. Puma’s Eva Recovery Center in Paterson, New Jersey, as well as for organizations such as the T.J. Martell Foundation and the anti-defamation league of B’nai B’rith.
He was married three times, first to his June May Horowitz with whom he had two sons before she passed of cancer. He later married Cynthia Slamar but the couple divorced. In 2007, he married Lynda Kady.