Photo: Walter Yetnikoff || Walter Yetnikoff (August 11, 1933 – August 8, 2021) was 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.
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.”
With Yetnikoff at the helm of CBS Records, Michael Jackson’s Thriller sold over 40 million copies, Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. 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. 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.
At CBS, Yetnikoff was the chief architect of the sale of CBS Records to Sony to create Sony Music Entertainment in January 1988.
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Yetkinoff married three times. His first wife was his college sweetheart June May Horowitz; they had two sons, Michael Yetnikoff and Daniel Yetnikoff, before she died of cancer. His second wife was Cynthia Slamar. He lived with his third wife Lynda Kady and their dog Alexandra in New York City and upstate New York.
Yetnikoff died of cancer on August 8, 2021, at a hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut, three days before his 88th birthday.
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