Walter Yetnikoff
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Walter Yetnikoff
Walter Yetnikoff
Walter Yetnikoff Paul McCartney.jpg
Walter Yetnikoff and Sir Paul McCartney
Born (1933-08-11) August 11, 1933 (age 87)
Alma materBrooklyn College
Columbia University
Years active1958–present
June May Horowitz (deceased)
Cynthia Slamar (divorced)
Lynda Kady (m. 2007 - present)
Children2 sons - Michael and Daniel
Parent(s)Max and Bella Yetnikoff

Walter Yetnikoff (born August 11, 1933) is an American music industry executive who was the president of CBS Records International from 1971 to 1975 and then president and CEO of CBS Records from 1975 to 1990. He is also known for his memoir, Howling at the Moon, written with David Ritz and published in 2004.

During his career at CBS, he guided the careers of Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Earth, Wind & Fire, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Gloria Estefan, and a host of other well-known artists.[1]

In 1975, William Paley made him President and CEO of CBS Records. During his tenure he attracted stars like James Taylor and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney away from, respectively, Warner Bros. Records and EMI, and went on to "preside over the most profitable and prestigious stable of artists of all time."[2][3]

With Yetnikoff at the helm of CBS Records, Michael Jackson's Thriller sold over 40 million copies, Earth, Wind & Fire's I Am and Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. each sold over 20 million and Billy Joel's The Stranger sold in excess of 13 million. Yetnikoff also helped launched the careers of Lauper (on Portrait Records, which CBS owned), Yankovic (on Scotti Brothers Records, which CBS distributed), and Estefan.

Yetnikoff was known for being a strong artist advocate. For example, Billy Joel speaks of how Yetnikoff bought back Joel's publishing rights and gave them to him as a birthday present. Yetnikoff notes in the documentary film The Last Play at Shea that he had to threaten Artie Ripp to close the deal.[4] Also, when MTV first declined to air the music video to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean", Yetnikoff charged the relatively new cable channel's executives with racism and threatened to pull all of CBS' material off the station.[5]

At CBS, Yetnikoff was the chief architect of the sale of CBS Records to Sony to create Sony Music Entertainment in January 1988.

Early life and education

Yetnikoff was born to a Jewish family[6] in Brooklyn to Bella and Max Yetnikoff. He attended P.S. 182., P.S. 149 and the prestigious Brooklyn Technical High School. He went on to graduate[7] magna cum laude at Brooklyn College (B.A., 1953) and was selected to become a member of Phi Beta Kappa. In 1953, he entered Columbia Law School, where he attained a full scholarship after his first year and was an editor of the Columbia Law Review.


CBS Records International

After receiving his LL.B. from Columbia, he served in the United States Army in Cold War-era West Germany from 1956 to 1958. Following his discharge, he was hired by the law firm Rosenman, Colin, Kaye, Petschek and Freund, which then represented William S. Paley and CBS.[8]

In 1962, Yetnikoff joined CBS Records as a staff attorney at the behest of general counsel Clive Davis, a former colleague from Rosenman & Colin. After serving as general counsel of the CBS Records law department, he moved over in 1969 as Executive Vice President of CBS Records International, which grew exponentially under his leadership.

In 1968, as general counsel, Yetnikoff was instrumental together with Harvey Schein in forming CBS/Sony, a Japanese joint venture which became highly profitable under Akio Morita and Norio Ohga.[9] Yetnikoff forged a close and lucrative working partnership with Sony executives, thereby establishing a groundbreaking collaboration between a major U.S. company and Japanese corporation.

In 1971 he was appointed President of CBS Records International. [10]

CBS Records

In 1975 he became President and CEO of CBS Records.

Among his most famous accomplishments, he is credited with breaking the MTV color barrier via Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean".[11] He nurtured Michael Jackson's solo career from Off the Wall through Thriller. At the 1984 Grammy Awards, Jackson called Yetnikoff up to the podium saying that he was "the best president of any company."[12]

Yetnikoff was credited by Billy Joel with providing the necessary financial and promotional support that propelled his career to its eventual record breaking heights.[13]

Under Yetnikoff's partial watch, "Weird Al" Yankovic became the highest-selling comedy artist of all time.

Gloria Estefan became the most successful crossover performer in Latin music to date under Yetnikoff's watch.

Yetnikoff also popularized and helped usher in the genre of freestyle via Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam.

Yetnikoff relentlessly pursued Paul McCartney and finally persuaded him to sign a deal that put the ex-Beatle's North American releases on CBS. Under Yetnikoff, in 1982, McCartney collaborated with Stevie Wonder on the number-one hit "Ebony and Ivory", included on McCartney's Tug of War, and with Michael Jackson on The Girl Is Mine from Thriller. The following year, McCartney and Jackson worked on Say Say Say, McCartney's most recent US number one hit.

Yetnikoff was also involved in Streisand's biggest selling album, Guilty with Barry Gibb from The Bee Gees.

Yetnikoff features prominently in Frederic Dannen's landmark 1990 book Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, which chronicles Yetnikoff's many victories, as well as some of his less successful business deals, such as his costly decision to lure Paul McCartney to CBS by giving him the rights to Frank Music, the publishing company that controlled the music of leading composer Frank Loesser - a move which was later estimated to have cost the label around $9 million, and which gave McCartney sole ownership of one of the most lucrative publishing catalogues in the world. Dannen also detailed Yetnikoff's volatile temperament, his notoriously abrasive and sometimes abusive personal conduct, and his intense business battles with other labels and executives. Dannen's book particularly focusses on the 1979-1983 conflict between Yetnikoff and his deputy Dick Asher over the shady practice of using independent promotion agents to place new records on radio station playlists - a practice that deeply concerned Asher, both because of its great cost (which Asher estimated in 1980 at $10 million annually for the CBS group alone) and because he worried that the practice might be found to be corrupt, and so could threaten the operations of the entire CBS group. The conflict climaxed with Asher's controversial sacking by Yetnikoff in April 1983[14]

Sony Music Entertainment

In 1988, Yetnikoff was the chief architect of CBS Records' sale to the Sony Corporation based on his decades-old relationship with Sony. The sale marked the first time that a Japanese firm bought a major American music company.


In the late 80s, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, then an editor of Doubleday, approached Yetnikoff about writing his life story.

Howling at the Moon

Yetnikoff's autobiography, Howling at the Moon, co-written with David Ritz, was published in 2004. He recounted in it how a Catholic priest, Monsignor Vincent E. Puma, had helped him recover from his addictions to alcohol and drugs. The Jewish Yetnikoff noted that he viewed Father Puma as a mentor: "It'd be easier for the Pope to convert to Islam than for me to turn Catholic, but that didn't stop me from hanging out with a priest who understood the need for redemption."[8] Entertainment Weekly praised the book as candid and noted "few record-company heads have written autobiographies, and fewer still have penned ones as candid as Howling at the Moon...Yetnikoff knows what readers want."[15]


Eva's Village

In addition to being involved with Father Puma, in Eva's Recovery Center in Paterson, NJ, Yetnikoff volunteers in recovery centers around the New York region.

Over the years, Yetnikoff has received awards from many philanthropic organizations such as the TJ Martell Foundation and anti-defamation league of B'nai B'rith.

Personal life

Yetkinoff married three times. His first wife was his college sweetheart June May Horowitz;[6] they had two sons, Michael Yetnikoff and Daniel Yetnikoff, before she died of cancer.[16] His second wife was Cynthia Slamar.[17] He lives with his third wife Lynda Kady and their dog Alexandra in New York City and upstate New York.


  1. ^ [1] The New York Times. 1984-01-22. The King of Records of CBS.
  2. ^ [2] The Guardian. Vodka for breakfast, secretary for lunch, signed the Stones at tea. Retrieved on 2014-04-12.
  3. ^ [3] The New Yorker. Blockbuster. Retrieved on 2014-04-12
  4. ^ The Last Play at Shea (2010). October 28, 2010. New York Times.
  5. ^ "Michael Jackson, "Billie Jean". Archived from the original on March 12, 2007. Retrieved .
  6. ^ a b "Walter Yetnikoff: On the record". The Independent. February 29, 2004.
  7. ^ Newsmakers - Peter M. Gareffa, Ann Evory - Google Books. 2008-06-04. ISBN 9780810322035. Retrieved .
  8. ^ a b Ritz, David. Howling At The Moon. 2004, Abacus Press. ISBN 0-349-11797-7.
  9. ^ [4]. Sony Global. Corporate Info. CBS/Sony Records is Established in First Round of Capital Deregulation. Retrieved on 2014-04-12.
  10. ^ Billboard - Google Books. (1971-07-31). Retrieved on 2013-07-16.
  11. ^ [5] CNN. Michael Jackson Broke Down Racial Barriers. Retrieved on 2014-04-12.
  12. ^ [6] 1984 Grammy Awards. 1 minute 30 seconds into video. Retrieved on 2014-04-12.
  13. ^ The Last Play at Shea (documentary film). 2010.
  14. ^ Dannen, Frederic, Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside The Music Business, Vintage Books, 1991 (ISBN 0099813106)
  15. ^ [7] Entertainment Weekly. The Hit Man.
  16. ^ Jacobs, Alexandra (March 8, 2004). "Manic Ex-Mogul Yells All-The Song Remains the Same". New York Observer.
  17. ^ Dannen, Fredric (September 13, 2011). Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business. Random House. ASIN B005IEH8DU. The occasion was Walter Yetnikoff's wedding to Cynthia Slamar, the latest in his line of blonde Gentile girlfriends

External links

Preceded by
President of CBS Records International
Succeeded by
Preceded by
President of CBS Records
Succeeded by
Sony Music Entertainment

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