b. 11 August 1933, New York City, New York, USA. A legend in the music industry, Walter Yetnikoff made his reputation in the 70s and 80s as the high-flying, high-spending business courtier to artists including Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson. His rise began in 1961 when he moved from entertainment law to become assistant to Clive Davis, the CBS Records general attorney. By 1972 he had become head of CBS International, then president of the group in 1975. At this time he signed multi-million dollar deals with James Taylor and the Beach Boys - who promptly refused to record for four years. By 1977 Yetnikoff’s bizarre behaviour was the subject of regular gossip column inches, particularly his hard-drinking approach to artist negotiations, tactics to which several artists objected. Paul Simon, for one, departed to rivals Warner Brothers Records. However, by the end of the decade Yetnikoff had secured the signatures of both Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. By 1983, with Jackson’s Thriller a multi-million seller and artists including Culture Club and the Rolling Stones on board, the executive was able to boast of soaring company profits. This allowed him to re-negotiate his own contract, with an annual salary of nearly half a million by 1984.
When Sony Records acquired CBS in 1987, Yetnikoff was rumoured to have received a bonus in the region of 20 million dollars, on the condition he took over as CEO of CBS Records. However, Yetnikoff remained a controversial figure - his public disagreement with Bruce Springsteen over the artist’s sponsorship of Amnesty International notwithstanding. By the end of the decade he had become head of Sony’s US film and record division, with responsibility for Columbia Pictures. However, his relationships with Springsteen, former executive Tommy Mottola and Michael Jackson all conspired to bring about his downfall from Sony at the beginning of the 90s. His severance pay was reputedly 25 million dollars. The rest of the 90s were taken up with the launch of Velvel Records - an umbrella organization promoting independent labels including Razor & Tie, Hybrid and Bottom Line Records, and the UK’s Fire Records. Evidently the music industry has not heard the last of Walter Yetnikoff. Many of his former colleagues and rivals were mercilessly exposed in his riveting autobiography.