Yetnikoff, terror of the record biz, dies at 87

Yetnikoff, terror of the record biz, dies at 87


norman lebrecht

August 11, 2021

Walter Yetnikoff, who ran CBS Records as his personal fiefdom until some time after it was sold to Sony, has died of bladder cancer, just short of 88.

A party animal, he featured in countless wild stories, but the biggest selling artists thought he was God. See my book When the Music Stops for more.

The Michael Jackson estate has issued this appreciation: ‘Walter Yetnikoff was a giant in the music industry at a time when it was more fun, more outrageous and complex and extremely less corporate than today, and he was a man for the times. It is difficult today to imagine the level of cultural apartheid at the music channels in 1983 when MTV refused to play Michael Jackson’s short film ‘Billie Jean.’ But Yetnikoff was ferocious on Michael’s behalf and didn’t hesitate to play corporate chicken with the powerful music channel. In short order, ‘Billie Jean’ was added to MTV in heavy rotation, opening the flood gates for Michael’s extraordinary success and also for a whole generation of black artists. Walter forced that to happen, and with that decision, the wall came tumbling down. He also took the groundbreaking step of giving Michael ownership of his masters, unheard of in the business at the time. Walter knew the only way to unleash a special talent like Michael onto the world was to trust the artist to follow his own instincts. As Michael put it, ‘He’s encouraged me to be my own man and to do the things that had to be done the way I had to do them.”




  • John Kelly says:

    There is a story that as Japanese Sony executives showed up for signatures when Columbia was sold that Walter refused to proceed “until I get an apology for Pearl Harbor” – which was duly provided………….

  • Patrick Gillot says:

    Was he also the boss for CBS masterworks?

  • MR says:

    One night at a restaurant in Westwood, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman seated next to us, and he turned out to be Clive Fox, the son of the Harry Fox who founded the Harry Fox Agency. Clive was formerly the general manager of MGM records, which included Verve. One of the artists he worked with, Bill Evans, had made an indelible impression both musically and personally. When the series about the music industry, Vinyl, came and went, I had intended to ask Clive about it, but we haven’t been in touch since then. It was great fun attending a number of the New Year’s Parties held by another music industry heavyweight, Shep Gordon, at his oceanside crib in Maui, including how he would have transported an actual Japanese restaurant into one side of the vast living room for the occasion. One night there, I found myself surrounded by a bevy of lovely ladies, perhaps mistakingly believing I was a Hollywood player, as there were people like Alice Cooper and Michael Douglas there. My girlfriend then appeared, rescuing me, and they vanished into the crowd.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Did he have anything at all to do with the Columbia-CBS classical division? Just curious…

  • Nijinsky says:

    As artistry goes, there was quite a difference between Louise Armstrong and Michael Jackson. Also regarding who opened doors for what…

  • .#WalterYetnikoff was the first music industry executive who was challenged by the SWC to deal with #antiSemitic lyrics in the early years of Rap music. May his memory be for a blessing.