Walter Yetnikoff Was a Wolf Among ‘Hit Men,’ But That Was His Undoing
Yetnikoff rose from modest beginnings in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the son of a laborer who periodically beat him. He edited the law review at Columbia Law School, and after a stint in the army, joined the law firm that represented CBS and its founder and chairman William Paley. CBS Records hired him as a staff attorney in 1961, and he moved steadily up the ranks to run the label’s international division, becoming label president in 1975. Unlike great record men such as Ahmet Ertegun, Clive Davis or Berry Gordy, Yetnikoff had a tin ear for music. But he had perfect pitch when it came to artist relationships. When Michael Jackson swept the 1984 Grammys for Thriller, he grabbed Yetnikoff by the arm and brought him onstage to share in the glory.
The Walter Yetnikoff I met in the late ’80s was bearded and barrel-chested, and chain-smoking Nat Sherman cigarettes, a habit that left his Brooklyn baritone a bit raspy. The beard, I always suspected, was worn to cover a weak chin, but it also accented his ethnicity, which he paraded with pride. He called himself Velvel, Yiddish for “Little Walter,” and dubbed Thomas Wyman, CBS president from 1980 to 1986, “the goy upstairs.” At the conclusion of my first encounter with him, he relayed plans for a new musical genre, “Hasidic rock,” and crooned one of his own compositions, “The Shiksa Shtupping Song.”
When Laurence Tisch — a “landsman,” as Yetnikoff put it, Yiddish for “fellow Jew” — ousted Wyman in September 1986, Yetnikoff was initially delighted. NBC News had recently singled out Yetnikoff for opposing an investigation of alleged organized crime influence in record promotion, and implied he was a cocaine user. Tisch rushed to his defense. A month after he became CBS president, I asked Tisch about the NBC report, and he all but wagged a finger at me. “Walter Yetnikoff is a very honorable man,” he said. “Don’t go by the fact that he’s not wearing a tie and has a beard. Walter is a conservative businessman, and too smart to do anything that would jeopardize the company or himself.”
The honeymoon didn’t last long. By 1987, Yetnikoff was calling the short and bald Tisch “the kike upstairs” and “the Evil Dwarf.” That year, Walter midwifed the sale of CBS Records to Sony for $2 billion, making himself rich in the process, with a sign-on bonus estimated at $20 million. He was gleeful. The last time I saw him, in May 1988, Yetnikoff was standing outside the Titus Theater at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Inside, Tisch was conducting the annual CBS shareholder’s meeting, fielding questions about the sale of the record division. “You know,” Yetnikoff said, noticeably drunk, “in the springtime, life blooms, and the flowers grow, and the grass is green, but dwarfs die in the light of the sun. And it’s sort of early spring. That’s a dream I had.”
Tisch, for his part, had ceased referring to Yetnikoff as “a very honorable man.” In 1991, he asked a reporter for New York magazine, “Did you read that book Hit Men? Do you understand why I sold that business? Would you want to be in that business?” Tisch died in November 2003, a few months before the publication of Howling at the Moon, which vindicated a good deal more his decision to sell — Yetnikoff’s confessed cocaine use at Black Rock could have jeopardized CBS’s federally sanctioned broadcast licenses, which were subject to FCC oversight.
Walter’s self-portrait was harsher than anything I had written about him, yet long after his tell-all was published, the mention of Hit Men still set him off. In a 2010 interview, he called me “a plagiarist,” claiming I had appropriated passages from a privately recorded tribute to the late Goddard Lieberson “with no attribution.” (Not true: the attribution was in my source notes.) Walter was always swearing to take legal action against all enemies, real or perceived — in 1988, he told journalist Fred Goodman he was contemplating a RICO, or racketeering, complaint against MCA Records — but not once did he threaten me with litigation.
That honor fell to Clive Davis and David Geffen. In late 1989, the unedited manuscript of Hit Men was leaked by someone at Random House, and before long it seemed all the book’s principal subjects had a copy. Davis sicked the prominent trial lawyer Robert Morvillo on me, and among his litany of complaints was my purportedly false and defamatory account of an unfortunate meeting between himself and the 21-year-old Bob Dylan. The Random House lawyer asked to see my source material. I showed her. It was Clive’s 1974 autobiography. Geffen, meanwhile, unleashed his legal bulldog Bertram Fields, and wasted his money, because the disputed passages had already been removed in the course of fact-checking and editing.
Entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman took a different approach, cordially inviting me to his office, where he insisted on serving me chicken soup with kreplach. Grubman wanted some changes to the chapter about him, and handled the matter in his typical fashion, as a friendly negotiation, an approach that never would have occurred to Geffen. Yetnikoff had thrown a lot of clients Grubman’s way, including Bruce Springsteen, and in return he expected absolute fealty and even some groveling — he once got Grubman to beg on his hands and knees to close a record distribution deal. My manuscript included another more egregious example of Grubman’s subservience to Yetnikoff, but I agreed to remove it, simply because it was not an important detail. Beyond that, I said I would change nothing that he couldn’t convince me was nonfactual. “You have this quote here from Walter,” Grubman said. “‘Once I yelled at Allen, and his wife told me he had to take three Valium.’” Not true? “It is true,” Grubman said. “But I wish you’d add I had to take three more Valium when I read your book!”
By the time Hit Men was published, Grubman no longer had reason to fear Yetnikoff, because Yetnikoff was self-destructing. In 1989, Yetnikoff had checked himself into the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota, emerging clean and sober, and remaining so, he maintained, until the end of his life. But sobriety, he wrote in Howling at the Moon, made him a better person only in some ways. “On many other levels,” he said, “I became worse.” In less than a year, Yetnikoff alienated nearly all his closest allies in the business, including David Geffen, whom he had roused to rage with his insults. Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau, who called Geffen his “rabbi,” issued a damning statement to Billboard in late August 1990. In it, Landau said he and Springsteen had long enjoyed “a superb professional relationship and a pleasant social one” with Yetnikoff, but for the past two years, “neither Bruce nor I have had a significant conversation with him.”
To this day, I am convinced that Landau’s declaration shook up the brass at Sony far more than Hit Men, and played the decisive role in Yetnikoff’s ousting. Afterward, I asked Landau whether Geffen had prompted him to issue the statement. He denied it, saying of Yetnikoff, “He took a 14-year relationship and trashed it for irrational reasons. I harbored a great deal of emotion, and I don’t feel like I needed any instruction from David or anybody else. I wrote it in consultation with Bruce.”
I don’t know whether Landau ever made peace with Yetnikoff, but I wish I had. Walter may have disliked me, but the feeling was by no means mutual. In 2014, I updated Hit Men’s e-book edition with a new last chapter — excerpted in Billboard — and the additional material was complimentary to Yetnikoff. In the more than two decades since the book had first been published, Walter had taken to heart the 12-step principle to be of service to others, drawing on his experiences as a recovering addict to volunteer at recovery centers around the New York area. And as a star trial witness, he had helped Steve Popovich, the founder of Cleveland International, recover unpaid royalties from Sony on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, which had been issued on Popovich’s custom label. True, while helping Popovich, Yetnikoff may have delighted in sticking it to Sony. Whatever his motive, his cross-examination by Sony’s attorney, whom Yetnikoff brilliantly flummoxed, makes for hilarious reading.
When the news broke of Yetnikoff’s death, I received a lot of messages from friends and colleagues, who, like me, were saddened by his passing. I particularly liked the note sent by Adam White, a former editor-in-chief of Billboard and Universal Music Group executive, and a good friend since the Hit Men days: “So adieu, Velvel. I never thought of him as ageless, but was rather surprised. Wonder if he’ll shout at the gatekeeper, whether above or below.”