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.”

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