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Michael Jackson, Yetnikoff, Geffen and THE 1990 POWER GRAB

July 19, 2018

For the majority of us the most important periods in Michael Jackson’s life are 1993 and 2005 (for obvious reasons), while the year 1990 is always mentioned in passing, usually as the time when Michael finished his Bad tour and began working on the new songs for his next, Dangerous album.

My attention to the year 1990 was drawn quite by chance too, through Darlene Craviotto’s book, but after a good look it turned into a pivotal point in Michael Jackson’s life – a kind of a “before” and “after it” matter, the moment of crucial changes in the power play around Jackson which in its turn determined the course of the events that followed.

Everything that happened at the time is of importance, to a degree that some of the episodes require analysis on a day by day basis. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that this post will abound in quotes, documents and various characters acting in those days – it will be an effort to restore the real picture and fit each detail into its right place.


MJ and Yetnikoff, President of CBS Records

The mega event Michael Jackson was participating in at that time, though probably being unaware of it, was the January 1988 acquisition of the CBS Records by Sony Inc. as a result of which Sony inherited MJ together with other hottest artists.

About two years later, in November of 1989 Sony also purchased Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Inc., one of the Big Six motion picture companies in the US.

The chief architect of both acquisitions was Walter Yetnikoff, president of the CBS Records who headed the company for 15 years (1975-1990).

In 1988, Yetnikoff engineered the sale of ‘the all-American company of all-American music’ to Akio Morita and Norio Ohga of Sony, aka ‘the Happy Japs’, with whom he had first forged a relationship two decades earlier.

At the time the media referred to Yetnikoff as “the most powerful man in the record industry”. In contrast, these days his contribution to the industry is rarely mentioned and seems to be forgotten altogether. At least when looking for information about CBS Records I haven’t been able to find as much as a Wiki page on CBS Records proper, not to mention the list of artists signed to this label under Yetnikoff, which is completely missing.

And it is only via the media reports of that period that we will be surprised to learn that besides Michael Jackson Yetnikoff’s name was also associated with Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, the Beach boys, Michael Bolton, Meatloaf, Terence Trent D’Arby and many others, whose names are less familiar to me but are all-time music icons for the US audience – James Taylor, Boston, Men At Work, Marvin Gaye and others.

This huge roster of artists was one of the reasons why Sony paid to Yetnikoff a bonus of $20 million, the other reason being that it was due to his personal effort that this acquisition took place at all.

Yetnikoff’s boss Laurence Tisch was about to sell CBS to someone in the food industry (for $1.25 billion) which made the shocked Yetnikoff contact Michael Schulhof, then the highest-ranking American official at Sony, with a suggestion to buy CBS outright. A year later the deal was made.

Here are some details:

The Rolling Stone Interview: Walter Yetnikoff

By Fred Goodman

DECEMBER 15, 1988 The Most Powerful Man in the Record Business

In January of 1988, CBS Records – the largest record company in the world and the owner of the greatest catalog of original American music – was sold by CBS Inc. to the Sony Corporation of Japan for $2 billion. To retain the label’s key executives, Sony offered a sizable sum – reportedly $50 million – in bonuses. The chief beneficiary of Sony’s largess was the president and CEO of CBS Records, Walter R. Yetnikoff, who lobbied hard for the sale to Sony and whose share of the pot is said to be as much as $20 million. Yennikoff won’t divulge just how much Sony paid him, but he does allow that the Japanese firm has made him a rich man.

One might wonder why any record executive would be worth that kind of money. But Yetnikoff is in a position to guarantee something that perhaps no one else can: a roster of bona fide superstar talent. Record companies sell CDs, LPs and cassettes, but their true value is also based on something that no accountant can measure – the artists they have under contract. And Walter Yetnikoff, perhaps more than any other executive in the record industry, is very good at keeping big artists happy and under contract.

Michael Jackson has described Yetnikoff as “a friend and a true believer. In my years with CBS, 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.” Among the other CBS artists Yetnikoff counts as personal friends are Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

Now fifty-five, the Brooklyn-born Yetnikoff is one of the record industry’s most colorful and outspoken executives. A graduate of Brooklyn College, he received his law degree in 1956 from Columbia University. After serving in the army and spending three years in private practice, Yetnikoff joined CBS Records in 1961 as a lawyer. He became president of the CBS Records Group – which includes the Columbia, Epic, Portrait and Associated labels –in 1975.

Pictures of CBS artists like Mick Jagger and Barbra Streisand decorate the wall over an immense stereo system. The wall behind his desk is practically a shrine to the label’s biggest-selling artist, Michael Jackson: there are platinum records for Thriller, a letter from Jackson thanking Yetnikoff for his help and an assortment of photographs of the singer. Leaning against one wall is a framed copy of the cover art for Bruce Springsteen album “Live: 1975-1985”. It is inscribed, “To Walter – The wildest man north of Asbury Park. Thanks for your friendship – Bruce.”

The inscription to “the wildest man” is appropriate. At the peak of his career Yetnikoff was indeed wild, incredibly wild. And on September 4, 1990 the retribution came – he was fired by Sony, after which the media turned relentless and remembered him all his flaws and sins.  He was described as a deranged alcohol and drug-addled egomaniac, “wild, menacing, crude, and, above all, very loud”, as a “brash, bumptious, foul-mouthed creature of outsize appetites: for deals, for booze, for women, for drugs” and much more of it.

In his book Howling at the Moon published in 2004 Yetnikoff admits all his sins and is disarmingly candid about everything he did. He says that “all hell broke loose” in 1975 when he was made President of the CBS Records. Then, according to Yetnikoff “a low-key, married father of two, morphed into a philandering egomaniacal monster who brazenly lived on the edge and flouted authority at every turn.”

”I’d come out of a coma around 7 or 8 a.m.,” he said, describing his daily routine as president of CBS Records from 1975 to 1990. ”By 9 I might have drunk a half a bottle of vodka. Then I would call someone at CBS, maybe the head of the network or accounting, and yell at them. I’d finally drag myself out of bed and get into the office around noon. The steward would immediately bring me a screwdriver.” Mr. Yetnikoff was referring to cocktails, not hardware.

At the urging of his doctor he checked into rehab in 1989, sobered up and discovered spirituality. After a stint at Hazelden [a clinic for drug and alcoholic dependence], he returned to CBS. A clearheaded Mr. Yetnikoff was not good for business.

”I would go into meetings and ask people to hold hands and say the serenity prayer,” he said laughing. ”It really freaked people out.”

The media says that Yetnikoff’s devilish humor and barbed tongue were legendary. He spoke his mind with no reverence for authority, never checked his tongue and even when working at CBS used to refer to his immediate boss as a “goy upstairs” [a Jewish derogatory name for a non-Jew] and to his next boss, the notorious cost-cutter Laurence Tisch as a “kike upstairs.”

“He liked to refer to former CBS chief Thomas Wyman as “the goy upstairs” and to Wyman’s successor, the frugal Laurence Tisch, with whom he feuded openly, as “the kike upstairs.”

Yetnikoff is also Jewish and according to Fredric Dannen’s book Hit Men it is his Brooklyn Jewishness that is the heart of his persona:

He filled the air with Yiddish epithets. The heart of Yetnikoff’s persona was his Brooklyn Jewishness,” says Fredric Dannen in his book Hit Men – Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business. “An outsized number of label bosses were Jews from Brooklyn, but Walter wore his ethnicity like a gabardine

But despite Yetnikoff’s biting tongue and all his brashness his artists thought highly of him. What warmed them up to him was his honesty, frankness, fierce loyalty and a kind of a brotherly spirit.

“They thought of him as a sparring partner… The more outrageously he behaved – telling Cyndi Lauper she should come back “when your period’s finished”; summoning the Beach Boys, four years late with their new album, to his office for a talk that opened with the words, “Gentlemen, I think I’ve been fucked” – the more they loved him. He inspired them.<..> Michael Jackson called him his Good Daddy, meaning he’s so close to Yetnikoff, he thinks of him as the nice father he never had.   

Walter keeps his powder dry with Liza, Michael and Liz, sometime in the ’80s.

Yetnikoff said:

”I’ve gone out of my way to establish relationships with many artists, even the new ones.” He chats them up by telephone, goes to their acts, visits them backstage. ”I go out more than I should, at my age. Sometimes I can’t believe the places I find myself.”

Show-business relationships are either very professional or very personal, Mr. Yetnikoff said, and personal is better. ”I sometimes feel like their shrink,” he said of his performers, ”their rabbi, priest, marriage counselor, banker. I know more about their personal lives than I’d like to know.” 

Yetnikoff’s style is inimitable – only he could praise Michael Jackson for his Thriller album the way Steve Knopper described it in his book “Appetite for Self-Destruction”:

With just months left in 1982, he gave Jackson and producer Quincy Jones a deadline: Finish a new album, and make it a blockbuster, by Christmas. They weren’t happy about having to rush, but they obeyed and finished the final Thriller mixes in a month. They turned them in to Epic Records, for release just before Thanksgiving.

“I told you I’d do it,” Jackson told Yetnikoff. “I told you I’d outdo Off the Wall.”

Yetnikoff responded: “You delivered. You delivered like a motherfucker.”

Jackson: “Please don’t use that word, Walter.”

Yetnikoff: “You delivered like an angel. Archangel Michael.”

Jackson: “That’s better. Now will you promote it?”

Yetnikoff: “Like a motherfucker.”

What made Yetnikoff special is that he understood the right of artists to be different and have the so-called “artistic temperament” which he appreciated even despite it being a difficulty.  In the above interview to the Rolling Stone he said that this temperament is exactly what makes artists unique and “being an artist means that you are not easy”.

What’s it like to work with Dylan? He has a reputation for being difficult.

Being an artist means you’re not easy. You are an original. Being a great artist means you’re different. Dylan’s not complicated. He’s moody … he’s Dylan. He’s not difficult at all; I don’t know where people get that impression. … in terms of being difficult to deal with, no, he happens to be a surprisingly nice guy. That doesn’t mean that I can tell Bob Dylan how to record. I’ve tried that – forget it.

Mottola, Bob Dylan and Yetnikoff

You have close relationships with many of your artists. What do you see as your role with CBS artists?

I think I have a heavier caseload than most psychiatrists. But you have to: this is the product. It doesn’t come off an assembly line, and it’s temperamental by definition. And it’s often difficult, because the touchstone of being a great artist is to be unique and original. Now, those who are unique and original, you don’t have a mold to deal with, because they’ve broken the mold. That’s what makes them good…. But when something is really serious. I have a big hammer.

I don’t know quite what my role is. While there are structures, and we have an organization, I am trying to change my approach to things, more like the mishpocheh theory. I don’t know how you are going to write that, but I have to do a little Yiddish. It means the extended family… You have to be sensitive to what is too easily called artistic temperament. It sounds like a negative thing, but it’s not. The artist must have artistic temperament in order to be an artist, because you can’t have an M.B.A.’s temperament and be an artist. How can you be a performing artist if you don’t have ego?

The NY Times likened Yetnikoff to an anxious Jewish mother nurturing and bullying his performers, and a short Wiki article on Yetnikoff says that he was fiercely loyal to his artists and was their strong advocate.

“Billy Joel speaks of how Yetnikoff bought back Joel’s publishing rights and gave them to him as a birthday present. Yetnikoff notes 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.

Of course, when standing up for his artists Yetnikoff was also thinking of better promotion of the company’s “product” and more profits for it, but there is no denying that he was also ready to rise to any challenge on their behalf and take risks even at the cost of his career.

However soon after the Sony acquisition all of it came to an abrupt end.


The event that took place in 1990 is called by Steve Knopper “a monumental power grab” which shaped Sony’s policy for more than a dozen years (until 2003):

“What Yetnikoff didn’t know was that an old friend, hyper-ambitious Thomas D. Mottola Jr., was quietly consolidating his power at CBS, positioning himself to take over the moment Yetnikoff slipped. Given Yetnikoff’s drug-and-alcohol problems and his increasing lack of public discretion, Mottola and his allies felt certain that time was coming—soon.

It would be a monumental power grab, one that would shape the way Sony’s music companies, Epic and Columbia, would operate for more than a dozen years.”

(from “Appetite for Self-Destruction”)

Allen Grubman, 1988

Yetnikoff made friends with Tommy Mottola in 1977 after being introduced to him by lawyer Allen Grubman.

The Vanity Fair article headlined “Tommy boy”, published in November 1996 and then disappearing from public view (the only place it is available now is here) explains how the three of them were brought together. It gives us the first feel of what the Mottola and Grubman pair was like.

We enter the story at the moment when Mottola signed the duo Hall and Oates to his budding management company, in a deal drawn up by his lawyer friend Grubman. As a result of the deal Mottola was soon driving in a limo with Grubman seated beside him while “the best-selling pop-rock duo of all time had to borrow $250,000 to pay their taxes”:

With Tommy disbursing the funds and overseeing the accounting, what had become the best-selling pop-rock duo of all time had to borrow $250 000 to pay their taxes. …Tommy, though was cruising Broadway, good pal Allen in the Limo seat beside him. They were a strange duo: Tommy always toned the Bronx tale slick; Allen usually fat and sloppy. Ambition, though, they had in common.

…Tommy and Allen had acquired a new best friend. That was CBS records chairman Walter Yetnikoff, boss of what was at that time the largest music company on the planet <>It was his liking for characters with similar backgrounds (Brooklyn-bred, Jewish, up from the streets) that bonded Yetnikoff to Grubman, who introduced him to Tommy. That friendship soon took off, and in 1977, CBS announced a production deal with Champion Entertainment.

At that point a problem arose – when Mottola went into business with CBS he neglected to inform about it his parent company RCA, which was home to the acts he was managing. It was Yetnikoff who got him out of the trouble – and Mottola realized that if Yetnikoff was a friend he was really a friend.

When RCA president Bob Summer pointed this out, Tommy went to Yetnikoff, who let him out of the deal. “From that point on.” Tommy told journalist Frederic Dannen, “I knew the kind of guy Walter was. If he was your friend he was really and truly your friend.”

They were all friends. Or so, for a long time, it seemed.

Knowing he could count on Grubman to keep the artists in line, Yetnikoff steered the attorney more and more acts. <>Allen Grubman, Esq., happened to do legal work for CBS Records as well. Was there a conflict of interest? Not for Grubman, who collected a $750 000 fee.

The above is an interesting detail – so Allen Grubman represented the interests of artists signed with CBS and simultaneously did legal work for the company too? This looks like a gross conflict of interest and when Grubman became Michael Jackson’s lawyer, replacing Branca in 1990, the same pattern was repeated – he negotiated Michael’s new deal with Sony/CBS while at the same time being the company’s legal consultant.

The rest of the “Tommy boy” story is a summary of the intricate events that followed.

In 1988 Yetnikoff promoted Mottola to the post of President responsible for the domestic US labels, replacing veteran Al Teller, who was a Harvard MBA (“not the most loved guy, but he liked music”, as his associates said). In this deal Mottola was also represented by his lawyer friend Allen Grubman, and though this was a conflict of interest again, apparently Yetnikoff trusted Grubman or Mottola, or both of them so much that he didn’t mind.

Mottola’s appointment boggled the industry. Tommy boy” says about it:

 “Walter could have done better by opening the L.A. phone book and choosing at random,” one manager was quoted as saying.

 The news also brought a quick call to Sony from a CBS corporate officer. “Do you know this guy has a Mafia background?” a senior executive quotes the CBS man as saying. “What are you doing tainting this wonderful company you just bought from us with a guy who has a background that could make the F.B.I cringe?”

Rattled Sony contacted the F.B.I. director William Sessions, requesting a quiet background check. The response was a qualified O.K. ‘The F.B.I. said, ‘No this guy is not somebody who will start dealing with people we should worry about, but he has friends who do,” says a former senior executive at Sony. “We said as long as he’s clean, we won’t worry.” And that was the basis on which we didn’t.”

Aware of the probe, Tommy quickly began assembling a coterie of executives loyal to himself.

…however, Walter got distracted: first by a month-long drying out at Minnesota’s Hazelden clinic, then by his role in the arrangements for bad boy producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters to take the helm of Sony’s latest acquisition, Columbia Pictures. During those negotiations, which wound up costing Sony $800 million in assorted payouts and contract settlements, the newly sober Yetnikoff managed to alienate nearly everyone, most fatefully his Japanese bosses, who packed him back to the record company.

In his absence, the company had become a different place. “This is my team; these are my people,” Tommy bragged. The new hires were his people. Schulhof knew of his ambitions -“Tommy,” he says, “has always been power-hungry”- and knew as well that a number of industry figures were assisting in furthering them. By far the most formidable was David Geffen, the billionaire record impresario and implacable Yetnikoff foe.

More than once Geffen had urged Schulhof to get rid of Yetnikoff, and Geffen also urged Michael Jackson, Yetnikoff’s most prized act to leave CBS. Jackson was unwilling to do that but did drop several key members of his entourage closely identified with Yetnikoff.In their place, he installed figures tightly linked to Geffen. Notable among them was an attorney Tommy had recommended to David years before, Allen Grubman.

The last two paragraphs explain why the original Vanity Fair article disappeared from public view (though Maureen Orth’s series defaming Michael Jackson is still on a proud display there) and is available now only in its reprinted version.

“Tommy Boy” was written not by the regular Vanity Fair staff but by a contributing author Robert Sam Anson. Apparently, the editors chose to remove this contribution from their archives not to draw attention to the fact that it wasn’t only Mottola who put a hand to Yetnikoff’s fall, but there were other forces assisting him and the most formidable of them was David Geffen.

As it turns out Geffen considered Yetnikoff his implacable foe and regularly pressed Schulhof to get rid of him, and also urged Michael Jackson to leave CBS.

Getting rid of Yetnikoff did not necessarily mean that it was also necessary for Michael to leave CBS. Though related to each other, these were clearly different Geffen’s ideas and therefore should be regarded separately.


Why did Geffen want Michael to leave CBS? A brief answer to that is because he wanted Michael Jackson for himself and his company Geffen Records.

In addition to Geffen’s personal ambitions such a transition would have been perfectly in line with the stiff rivalry between Warner Bros. Records and CBS. Together they controlled about 50% of the records industry and the share of each was constantly changing. In 1984 CBS prevailed, most probably due to Thriller’s smashing success, while in 1989 the situation was the reverse.

The NY Times reported the details (please note that it is only from articles like these that we learn what artists were signed to CBS Records under Yetnikoff and that he was indeed “the king of records” then).



January 22, 1984

CBS Records is the largest of the American record operations – it had a 22 percent market share last year, followed by Warner Communications with 19 percent, according to a report by F. Eberstadt & Company “ – is enjoying the most dramatic upturn.

Many of the brightest stars in the recording business’s firmament are at CBS Records. The most radiant, of course, is Michael Jackson. But the roster also includes former Beatle Paul McCartney, Men at Work, Quiet Riot, Bonnie Tyler, Billy Joel, Culture Club – an English group whose sound Mr. Yetnikoff cheerfully characterized last year as ”transvestite rock” – and Barbra Streisand, whose new movie, ”Yentl,” spawned a top-ranked album.

THOSE luminaries and others put CBS firmly at the top of the charts last year: The record group boasted 4 of the top 10 albums, and 5 of the top 10 singles. And last summer, Mr. Yetnikoff moved to strengthen CBS’s grip on the stars by signing up the Rolling Stones in a multiple-album, multimillion-dollar deal.

And somewhere in the future, the CBS Records president suggests, there could be a CBS movie starring Michael Jackson. ”Who could be more perfect for a movie,” Mr. Yetnikoff asks rhetorically, ”and who has as good a relationship with him?”

 But five years later, in 1989 the Warner Music Group was prevailing over CBS Records. The same NY Times reported that one of the reasons was the structure of the company – it had four records divisions, each competing with each other to bring talent and two more labels to distribute.

Geffen Records was one of them – smaller than the others, but extremely ambitious, so no wonder Geffen was courting Michael Jackson and trying to lure him away from CBS.

A Cold Spell for CBS Records


May 17, 1989

….suddenly CBS Records is, in record industry terms, ”cold.” A little more than a year  after the Sony Corporation bought the company for $2 billion, its established artists are not producing as many hit records and it is has not come up with enough hot young artists to keep its lead in the industry.

CBS’s market share is spiraling downward. According to data compiled by Warner Communications Inc. from Billboard, the industry trade paper, over the last 52 weeks Warner Records has had 41.2 percent of the top 20 albums and CBS has had just 19 percent.

Some people in the industry think that part of CBS’s problem stems from the company’s corporate structure. Under Mr. Yetnikoff, CBS has tended to be run from the top down. And it has had just two major record labels, Columbia Records and Epic/ Portrait/CBS Associated. Each is run by a senior vice president for marketing and a senior vice president for artists and repetoire. Both executives reported to Al Teller, the former president of the division. Mr. Teller in turn reported to Mr. Yetnikoff. A lawyer by training, Mr. Yetnikoff was responsible in many cases for courting and signing top artists.

At Warner, by contrast, the men who run the three main labels are all powers in their own right: Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, Mo Ostin the founder of Warner Brothers Records, and Robert Krasnow, the chairman of Elektra.  Warner also distributes records by the Geffen Company led by David Geffen. The Guns ‘N Roses album is a Geffen release. The company also releases albums from Island Records and Virgin Records.

Warner has a much more decentralized structure, analysts say. That means generally that it has more artist and repertoire people: executives whose job it is to discover, nurture, and promote talent. As Mr. Azoff put it: ”At Warner there are Warner, Elektra, Atlantic and Geffen. There are four staffs and four major executives all competing for talent.”

Would Michael Jackson have been happier if he had left CBS/Sony as Geffen urged him to? Especially if he had signed with David Geffen as the latter apparently wanted?

Hardly so. George Michael tried it in 1992 after losing his lawsuit against Sony and leaving the company with a bang.

At the time Geffen ‘rescued’ his career by allegedly offering a check for $30 million to buy the artist out, and signing him with his own Dreamworks SKG (to manufacture and distribute his records in the US) and Virgin (to handle the rest of the world) which was a label also distributed by Warner.

As it could easily be expected, later it turned out that the many-million Geffen contribution to George Michael’s career was somewhat an embellishment:

It becomes clear that Virgin will pay more than Geffen, as it stands to make more from the new deal: the profitability in Virgin’s territories are greater per unit than Geffen’s, as record pricing more competitive in United States.

George Michael with Al Teller and Walter Yetnikoff of CBS Records

Throughout his dispute with Sony, Michael had maintained that his complaint was never about money; he had pleaded in court that he already had “more money than I know what to do with”. His beef was always about creative control, musical direction, mutual understanding between artist and multinational conglomerate.

Sony offers to talk again, but George Michael says the situation is irreversible.

Indeed, George Michael’s campaign against Sony was not about money. The trigger that reportedly set him off was a certain incident when then Sony chief Don Ienner allegedly called the artist “a faggot”. Ienner said it was not true and the remark could easily be a rumor sent racing around by someone who wanted George Michael for himself – a possibility that cannot be ruled out considering the usual modus operandi of the character we are dealing with here.

Whatever the case, eleven years later, in 2003 George Michael returned to Sony and signed with the same Ienner, and was welcomed back. The media had little or nothing to say about George Michael’s experience with Dreamworks SKG and Virgin labels. The only information I’ve found is that he regretted going to war with Sony and also made this somewhat enigmatic statement about his stint with David Geffen:

He told friends that it did not matter that he had signed with Geffen, run by a prominent gay executive and founder David Geffen, because the music industry functioned as an old boys’ club, its contracts based on those used to tie stars to studios.” “It was part of the reason he turned his back on America,” recalls Kim Bowen, a close friend of the singer. 

To me this cryptic comment sounds like George Michael being disappointed with his cooperation with Geffen, so whether gay or not gay, the terms for the artist there must have been the same or even worse, considering that he chose to go back to the studio on which he had once slammed the door.

The reasons why even the biggest stars signed to Geffen’s label were not quite happy with the experience are rare to find as the internet has been apparently cleaned of the most dramatic episodes, but time and again you can come across an occasional piece.

Have a look at this one, for example, which is an extract from Barney Hoskyns’s book Hotel California. According to the author Geffen was on a hunt for the most significant artists, but not so much because he cared about the music but because he was “in the David Geffen business.”

Barry Diller, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and David Geffen at Liza Minnelli’s post-concert party (April, 1983)

Same as the late Geffen’s biographer Tom King who was stunned by Geffen’s ability to lie, this author also speaks of him as a “ruthless schemer” and the truth being “invariably the first victim of his insatiable need to win”.

Geffen’s method is described as earning the trust of artists and their inner circle and then waging war on everybody else.

Sex, drugs and the billion-dollar rise of David Geffen

By Barney Hoskyns 

18 November 2005

“I quickly figured out that the one ability I’d better have is to create relationships,” Geffen says of his time in the William Morris mail room. With chutzpah, David figured he could beat just about anyone at the entertainment game. The key, though, was to earn the trust of an inner circle of artists and then wage war on everybody else.

An early victim of Geffen’s ruthlessness was Paul Rothchild, who’d produced the first CSN demos but was unceremoniously squeezed out of the frame before recording began. “That was the beginning of the end of the love groove in American music,” Rothchild says. “When David Geffen enters the California waters as a manager, the sharks have entered the lagoon.”

…From their adjoining offices at 9130 Sunset Boulevard Geffen and Elliot Roberts built their musical empire with remorseless drive. Geffen left Roberts to massage the egos of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell and company and instead concentrated on the next phase of empire-building: launching his own label.

Together, they plotted their route to world domination. Crucial to their strategy was the creation of an insulated élite, a pampered aristocracy of Geffen’s significant artists. ….Now this short, slim New Yorker was running rings around everybody in the business. It was a wake-up call for anyone growing lazy and complacent. “If you want to talk about what happened to the LA scene in the 1970s you can sum it up with one name,” says David Anderle. “David Geffen happened. All of us stopped smoking pot and got serious.”

… Handsomely backed by Steve Ross and Mo Ostin, Geffen Records took off slowly, with flops by Elton John and Donna Summer. But Geffen parlayed his friendship with John Lennon into a deal that paid off handsomely after the ex-Beatle was shot dead in December 1980.

…”At some point David said, ‘I’m not really the finder of talent any more,'” says Mel Posner, who headed up Geffen’s international department. “He said, ‘Let’s get the best people.’ That’s what he did. <> Over the ensuing decade, that troika of talent-finders would bring a host of multi-platinum artists – from Cher and Aerosmith to Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana – to Geffen. Yet he himself managed to antagonise the very Reprise/Asylum artists (Young, Mitchell, Henley) who’d brought him such success in the 1970s.

…When Young’s and Mitchell’s albums failed to sell, “David started feeling real pressure,” Elliot Roberts recalls. Infamously, Geffen in 1983 took the unprecedented step of suing Young for making “musically uncharacteristic” records. This time he made a foe not only of Young but of Roberts, his oldest ally. “It ended our friendship,” Roberts says.

Mitchell, meanwhile, blamed her commercial failure on Geffen, alleging that he’d failed to pay her publishing royalties. On at least one occasion the former Bel Air housemates got into a screaming match in Geffen’s office, with Joni demanding to be released from her contract. “If I didn’t talk to her for the rest of my life,” Geffen bluntly told his biographer Tom King, “I wouldn’t miss her for a minute.”

“David Geffen used to care about music,” [his other client] Don Henley said sourly. “But he’s not in the record business any more. He’s in the David Geffen business.”

Now that we know what Michael Jackson missed when he didn’t give in to Geffen’s urge to sign with his label and lost the chance to be added to his “aristocracy of artists” roster, it is time to ask the second question – why did Geffen want to get rid of Yetnikoff and more than once urge Schulhof to fire him?


To find out why Geffen considered Yetnikoff his implacable foe let us resort to the scarce information still available to us despite the obvious effort to erase its last traces.

The Hit Men by Fredric Dannen (first published on July 7, 1990) says:

Apart from his falling-out with Grubman, Walter made an even more tragic mistake – he aroused the rage of David Geffen. 

…Geffen was vengeful and used to getting what he wanted. And shortly after Walter’s release from Hazelden what Geffen wanted most was a Michael Jackson single for the movie Days of Thunder, since his records company was going to put out the soundtrack album. When Jackson declined to write an original song for the movie, Geffen agreed to settle for an outtake from the Bad album – a cover of John Lennon’s “Come Together.”

The trouble was, Walter did not agree that Geffen could have the recording. Worse, his method of delivering the bad news was crude even by Walter’s standards. <> Yetnikoff had occasionally made sarcastic references over the years about Geffen’s bisexuality, but never to his face.

Now, on the phone with Geffen Records president Eric Eisner, Yetnikoff was screaming about Geffen’s attempts to secure the Jackson single [and] also told Eisner that he would compensate Geffen handsomely if he would give Yetnikoff”s new girlfriend lessons in fellatio. Geffen was not amused in the slightest. This was war.

Geffen began to explore a course of action that, if successful, would surely damage Walter’s professional standing. If he couldn’t get a Michael Jackson single, could he get Michael Jackson himself? As Geffen was well aware, the singer’s recording pact with CBS had been negotiated under California law, which provides that contracts can be abrogated after seven years – an amount of time that had already expired in Jackson’s case…

Yetnikoff, DiLeo and MJ

The signer’s former manager, Frank DiLeo, a diehard Yetnikoff loyalist, might have saved the day for Walter.

But he had been let go in early 1989, partly at Geffen’s urging. DiLeo had not been replaced. Instead, his role was filled by Jackson’s lawyer of more than a decade, John Branca.

Branca was very much Walter’s man and therefore an obstacle between Geffen and Jackson. Geffen had never had much love for Branca. Despite Branca’s presence, however, it seemed that Jackson was increasingly willing to take his cue from Geffen.

… Jackson replaced Branca with a manager and three attorneys. The manager, Sandy Gallin, happened to be one of Geffen’s closest friends. For publishing, Jackson now used Lee Phillips – Geffen’s West Coast attorney. For litigation, he hired Bert Fields, who was also Geffen’s litigator. For records, he retained Allen Grubman. <> According to Rolling Stone, when he learned that Jackson had hired Grubman, “Walter went crazy.”

…Rumor of Michael Jackson’s possible defection to Geffen Records had presumably reached Sony’s ears by now. As it turned out, however, Geffen had already concluded that he could not pull it off. Bert Fields had delivered the bad news. True, under California’s seven-year statute, Jackson could break his CBS contract. But he still owed CBS four albums. Whoever signed him could be sued for the estimated combined earnings of those albums – a sum greater than the gross national product of Uganda.

…On September 4, 1990 Sony announced that Walter Yetnkioff was leaving his post. After fifteen years as head of CBS Records, Yetnikoff’s reign as “king of grooves” was over. It had fallen apart with astonishing swiftness. In one year of sobriety, Walter had turned on, or been turned on by, many of his closest friends in the business: Geffen, Grubman, Guber, Landau, Mottola, and Schulhof.

As usual, David Geffen was among the first to learn the news. He reportedly telephoned Irving Azoff, with whom he now maintained a truce. “Ding dong the witch is dead,” Geffen said.

The above gives us the general idea of what happened. So the feud presumably started with Michael’s Come Together record, which Geffen wanted for his soundtrack album to Tom Cruise’s movie, but Yetnikoff refused him. And when Yetnikoff added that vulgar sexual remark real war began.

However it also looks like Geffen starting his maneuvers from afar, by first urging Michael to fire his manager Frank DiLeo (in 1989) and later dealing with John Branca who temporarily filled in as Michael’s manager, and who was Yetnikoff’s ally and another obstacle between Geffen and Jackson.

In any case if the issue was only the revenge, it means that in order to resolve his personal problem with Yetnikoff Geffen removed the two people who had been working with Michael for many years and contributed to his success. What a massive approach to one’s revenge…

In search for more detail let us see what Yetnikoff says about the same episode. His book Howling at the Moon amazes you by its supreme honesty which is often extremely damaging to his own self, so it is impossible to doubt his word when he says that he refused Geffen because Michael first promised the record to Geffen, but later changed his mind.

Yetnikoff describes the incident as nothing much, as an almost routine problem to settle between his morning screwdriver (a cocktail) and his business with Mick Jagger. It was also a chance for him to bite Geffen which Yetnikoff didn’t mind taking. And in that context even the vulgar sexual remark looked like his usual teasing banter and a mindless joke.

The ringing wouldn’t stop, so I schlepped back inside and picked up the phone. I couldn’t mistake the high-pitched voice of Michael Jackson.

”Walter,” he said. “I’m in a helicopter flying over Long Island.”

“You with the monkey?”

“Bubbles is back in California. This is important, Walter. David Geffen just called. He’s producing the soundtrack for Tom Cruise’s new movie, Days of Thunder. He wants to use one of my songs. And I don’t want him to. But I told him yes.”

“Why did you say yes when you wanted to say no?”

“Well, you know Geffen…”

“Too well. I once proposed marriage to him.”

“You what?”

“I’m kidding, Michael. I’m kidding.”

“Anyway, I couldn’t tell him no, but I want you to. I don’t want my music in that movie. My music’s is getting spread too thin.”

“Fine, Michael. I’ll tell him no.”

“But I don’t want him to know that I’m saying no. I don’t want him mad at me. I’m saying yes. You’re saying no.”

“So he should get furious with me?”

“You like it when people get furious at you.”

Michael wasn’t entirely wrong. Besides, the King of Pop was right even when he was wrong. In this case, Geffen had been working behind my back to get Michael’s ear. Once a friend, soon to be a nemesis, Geffen spent all his waking hours manipulating the fortune of famous artists. Fuck Geffen. I welcomed the chance to burn his bitchy ass.

“Anything else, Michael?” I asked, my head throbbing.

“When are you coming back to Neverland?”

“When you get rid of the zoo. Your peacocks hate me. They are jealous.”

…“You’ll talk to Geffen?”

“I’ll talk to Geffen.”

“And you’ll make the soundtrack problem go away…”

“Like magic.”

 ….the goddamn phone wouldn’t stop ringing.  [David Geffen] was calling from Malibu. Just what I needed.

“Walter,” he said. ”I spoke with Michael this morning…”       

“You’ve spoken with everyone this morning,” I told him. “You get up at five in the morning and start calling the world. I must be your fiftieth call. I thought I was important, but I didn’t even make your top ten…”

“Don’t start it with me, Walter.”

The screwdriver arrived. Thank God.

“Michael said I could use a song on the Days of Thunder soundtrack,” Geffen continued.

“Forget about it.”

“What do you mean, forget about it?”

“It’s not going to happen.”

“What are you talking about? Michael himself agreed. Your artist gave me his word.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Besides, you bully him. You bully everyone.”

“Who’s the bully here?”

“This conversation is useless, David. You’re not getting the song.”

“That’s Michael’s call – and he’s already made it.”

“You’re wrong. I’m making it. And I’ll make it stick. Find some other song. And if you want to be useful, teach my girlfriend to give better blow jobs.”

I hung up and looked over my littered desk memos, calls-to-return slips, copies of the soon-to-be-released Rolling Stones CD, Steel Wheels, reminders that Jagger was looking for me… All they had to do was sign when suddenly at 3 a.m. Mick goes mental and calls me a “stupid motherfuckin’ record executive”. I reach for his throat… I stop myself, envisioning tomorrow’s headline – “Yetnikoff Kills Jagger.” Jagger relents, signs and from then on it’s wine and roses.

(from “Howling at the Moon” by W.Yetnikoff)

What impressed me most was not Michael’s inconsistency about that record (Geffen is a master of persuasion) or his fear of Geffen’s fury, but the fact that Yetnikoff was ready to get Michael out of the trouble even at the cost of a huge trouble for himself. Of course the “screwdriver” contributed to his carelessness, but still.

Apparently, Michael Jackson was embarrassed by his refusal to Geffen. “Hit Men” says about it:

On June 3, 1990, Jackson was admitted to a California hospital, complaining of chest pains.A source close to Jackson claims the malady was either a fake or brought on by the stress of not wishing to disappoint Geffen.

Then again, perhaps the real source of stress concerned John Branca. On June 19, only a week after his release from the hospital, Jackson sent Branca a termination notice. The letter was promptly rescinded, but by early July, Branca was let go by Jackson once and for all. Branca later learned that Geffen had convinced Jackson that the attorney was “too close” to Walter Yetnikoff.

What a coincidence. Only recently, in connection with Craviotto’s book we talked about that Michael’s malady (which was quite real) and the letter he sent to Geffen after his stay at the hospital, and here we are with another piece of the puzzle that perfectly fits in.

Michael’s letter was written on June 21, 1990 and in case you forgot it here it is again.

June 21, 1990

Dear David:

The flowers you sent during my illness were so beautiful and greatly appreciated. With your prayers and blessings as my shield, I am quickly advancing towards complete recovery. I fully expect to resume work in the near future and continue sharing the fruits of my labor with loyal friends such as you. Thank you for standing by me. You’re wonderful!

Love always,

Michael Jackson

To be frank, the first time I saw this letter Michael’s promise to “continue sharing the fruits of his labor” with Geffen looked somewhat out of context, but now his words acquired meaning and the picture is complete.

The promise to “share the fruits of his labor” was evidently Michael’s way to apologize to Geffen for that small misunderstanding with the Come Together record and assure him that in the future he would share his records if Geffen wanted them.

And secondly, since the letter was written two days after Branca’s termination, its idea was also to convey to Geffen Michael’s respect for him and express hope that now that the last obstacle was removed Michael would reach the new heights with the help of a loyal friend like David Geffen.

What a naïve hope.

Another source of that period mentioning Geffen’s role in the global power shift around Michael Jackson is the April 1991 issue of Spy Magazine. Its article by Fred Goodman is actually about Geffen as the “Toughest, Richest Impresario in Show Business”, but it also details the way Geffen went about his revenge against Yetnikoff.

Here are some extracts:

…letting bygones be bygones is not generally Geffen’s style. While wheeling and dealing his way to extraordinary wealth last year he found the time to help do in Yetnikoff, his longtime nemesis.

The last straw apparently came last fall, when Yetnikoff refused to allow Michael Jackson, CBS’s biggest act, to record a song for the Days of Thunder soundtrack, which was to be released by Geffen Records. The voluble, foulmouthed Yetnikoff, already on thin ice with his rather more reserved new bosses at Sony, reportedly offered to have Sony buy Geffen Records for $1 billion if Geffen would show Yetnikoff’s girlfriend “how to give me a blowjob.”

Geffen indulged his vengeance subtly. He was reportedly behind press leaks regarding Yetnikoff’s waning power that hastened his downfall.

Geffen also supplanted Yetnikoff as a confidant of Jackson’s. Insinuating himself into Jackson’s confidence, offering his business advice as a friend, Geffen persuaded Jackson to replace his manager and attorney, who had been pals of Yetnikoff’s, with men close to Geffen.

SPY April 1991

“Geffen must have been pleased to see Michael Jackson help the unthreatening Mottola take over CBS Records” (SPY, April 1990)

While Yetnikoff foundered, rumors abounded that Jackson would be deflecting from CBS to Geffen Records or MCA. In the end, Yetnikoff left CBS, and Jackson stayed.

Geffen, however, wasn’t through plotting.  As Yetnikoff’s longtime lieutenant Tommy Mottola was looking to shore up his position with Sony, observers noted Geffen’s influence when the reclusive Jackson sat at Mottola’s table at a dinner honoring Mottola in Los Angeles. Sony executives were pleased to see that Jackson and Mottola seemed close, and Geffen must have been pleased to see a not-very-threatening figure to take the helm of a major rival.

Later, Jackson’s publishing company, ATV Music, through which he controls most of the Beatles’ songs, moved from EMI Music to MCA Music for administration.

What makes this peculiar is that MCA Music is not set up to manage the catalog outside the United States and will be obliged to hire another company – EMI, say – to perform that task. It’s a testament to Michael Jackson’s esteem for David Geffen that he will needlessly pay more for these back-office services just to be under the same corporate umbrella as Geffen.

Nothing could illustrate Geffen’s modus operandi better than this vengeance plan against Walter Yetnikoff. The operation was carried out subtly and slowly with nothing pointing in the direction of the one who masterminded it.

First came the press leaks regarding Yetnikoff’s waning power. The second edition of Hit Men (1991) says that all it would take to shatter Yetnikoff’s power would be an article by Laura Landro that appeared on August 17, 1990 in The Wall Street Journal.

“She reported that Yetnikoff’s relations with Jackson and Springsteen had soured, and that he had just signed a new contract under which he would gradually phase out his managerial duties and groom a successor. Tommy Mottola was described as the “most logical candidate” to take his place… Someone had leaked this information with a decidedly negative spin. Landro would not reveal her sources, but Walter was sure that Geffen and Mottola were involved.”

However the book itself, I mean “Hit Men” by Fredric Dannen, is also the press leak meant to damage Yetnikoff’s reputation and undermine his professional standing. As I’ve already said its first publication came in July 1990, two months before his dismissal, and its central idea was to depict Yetnikoff as the main record industry villain involved in the shady business practice of “paola”.

Initially paola was a way to bribe radio promoters with gifts, expensive trips, etc. Later it transformed into an official Network promoting certain records with a goal to turn them into hits, naturally for a fee. The annual revenue of the Independent Promoters Network amounted to about $80 million as a fee collected from all record labels.

Yetnikoff’s associate Asher wanted to put an end to this practice, however Walter disagreed (probably because it would put his company at a disadvantage in comparison with everyone else). A tough feud followed, and in 1983 Asher was fired.

Steve Knopper says about it:

Asher walked into a feud with his boss, Walter Yetnikoff, who knew many of the promo men personally and looked the other way at the gigantic budget items. Tension between the two stubborn men blew up into profanity-laced shouting matches at the CBS offices and soon led to Asher’s downfall. Yetnikoff fired him in 1983.

“I wasn’t a whistleblower. I wasn’t,” says Asher. “I reached a point where I didn’t want CBS involved in something. If any part of CBS were caught in any illegal activity, the government could pull their licenses.” (from “Appetite for Self-Destruction”)

No licences were pulled as the activity was not illegal, however in Fredric Dannen’s book Yetnikoff looks almost like a mafia boss. These revelations were a bomb for the uninitiated and it is due to Dannen’s interpretation of the problem that today’s Wiki page on Yetnikoff speaks more about paola than about his artists – though all record companies, I repeat, all of them spent more than 30% of their profits on independent radio promotion, according to Fredric Dannen himself.

Yetnikoff was simply much more candid about that practice in the music industry than the other insiders, and hence the result. So though “Hit Men” did look like an impartial expose criticizing the industry as a whole, it was actually a hatchet job against Yetnikoff and was partially responsible for his fall.

Incidentally, Fredric Dannen was a contributing editor at the Vanity Fair. What does it matter, you will ask? Nothing, just a small observation that may come in handy one day.

Now, according to Spy Geffen’s next move was to “insinuate himself into Jackson’s confidence” and make him fire the people close to Yetnikoff. The key changes were made in the summer of 1990.

  • Allen Grubman replaced John Branca (early July 1990) and negotiated Michael’s new recording deal with Sony.
  • Geffen’s closest friend Sandy Gallin became Michael’s personal manager (August 18, 1990) and replaced Frank DiLeo, who was a “diehard Yetnikoff loyalist” fired in early 1989, immediately after Michael’s Bad tour.
  • At about the same time Geffen’s lawyer Bert Fields was hired for litigation purposes.
  • And on September 4, 1990 came the turn for Walter Yetnikoff to be dismissed.

As we already know the Wall Street Journal named Mottola a “logical successor” to Yetnikoff, however the head of Sony Norio Ohga decided otherwise and gave the job to the President of Sony America Schulhof (who was responsible for all Sony software in the US – films, TV and music). So Mottola had to wait until Schulhof was fired too (in December 1995).

Adding to the list of those who were removed from Michael Jackson’s side, in spring 1991 Jon Peters, co-chairman of Sony/Columbia Pictures (the one who was working on the MidKnight movie project with MJ and was Michael’s ardent supporter) also had to go. Jon approached his two lawyers (one of them was Bert Fields), but the media reported that “the dogs of law refused even to bite, or even bark”, urged Peters to accept the golden parachute and leave.

Since David Geffen was the obvious driving force behind all these changes it means that the very least he wanted from those moves was to enforce his role around Michael Jackson and establish his domination in advising Michael on his career and finances.

By now we know the result of those efforts, whether it was deliberate or not. So whenever someone points at Sony’s Mottola as the main “devil” in the above game, these people should be reminded that Mottola was not the only one and had the powerful and “most formidable” Geffen working behind the scenes.

The third interesting detail in the above Spy article is that Michael Jackson moved his publishing company, ATV Music (the Beatles catalog) from EMI to MCA for administration.

Extract from SPY, April 1991

The beauty of this move will be appreciated only if you realize that in March 1990 Geffen sold his record label to MCA for $550 million but continued running it until 1995, so this transition placed the catalog management either into Geffen’s hands or at the very least into the hands of Geffen’s parent company.

Another beautiful thing about that move was that MCA could not manage the catalog outside the US and was obliged to hire another company (the same EMI, for example) to perform the task. Most probably Geffen convinced Michael that MCA would do the job better, and Michael followed the advice though it placed him in a position of having to pay extra expenses needlessly, especially if the overseas job was to be done by the same EMI.

What did Geffen get from this deal and why was he interested?

Well, the very least is that it must have been bringing more profit to himself or his parent company, and this is the very least of it.


This post is already too long, but it would be a crime not to mention still one more source. It is an article published in the NY Magazine on November 5, 1990 which is a unique and priceless gem.

What’s valuable about it is that it was written in the wake of Yetnikoff’s dismissal and provided the colorful details in their raw unpolished form before they were removed from everywhere else thus making the eventual story squeaky-clean and almost sterile.

This unforgettable piece is not especially kind to Yetnikoff or the other characters (probably, except Sony’s chairman Norio Ohga) and does create an impressive picture of the 1990 events.

Same as with the previous article some extracts from it had to be retyped as there is no text version of it online.

How Record Heavyweight Walter Yetnikoff Took the Big Fall

By Eric Pooley

The NY Magazine, November 5, 1990 issue

‘Remember, Grubman – I made you.” Walter Yetnikoff was smiling as he said this, but he wasn’t joking. On a winter’s afternoon early this year, Yetnikoff – the bearded, devilish CEO of Sony”s CBS Records, for years the most powerful and outrageous executive in the $20-billion global music business – was looking across his desk at Allen Grubman, a chubby and ingratiating man who with Yetnikoff’s help had become the industry’s mightiest lawyer.

The two men had been cronies for more than a decade, adversaries across the negotiating table but also allies in a synergy of schmooze that had launched hundreds of big-money deals and made them both rich. Grubman’s firm represented one third of the artists on Yetnikoff’s pop roster (including Bruce Springsteen, George Michael, and Luther Vandross), but the lawyer was working for so many other record companies, executives, managers, and stars – Madonna, Bon Jovi. Sting, dozens more – that Grubman’s influence  was beginning to outstrip Yetnikoff’s. He didn’t need Yetnikoff anymore – and that notion drove Walter up the wall. Worst of all, Grubman was working for Yetnikoff’s rival, entertainment mogul David Geffen. Yetnikoff wanted that to stop. “I made you,“ Yetnikoff said, “and I choose not to destroy you – at least not now.”

Grubman had heard that kind of B-movie threat before from Yetnikoff, 57, who’s been issuing such warnings more often as his ability to carry them out evaporated. After hammering away at his industry rivals for fifteen years, the cantankerous Yetnikoff – the master deal-maker and self-styled rabbi to the stars who’d boosted CBS Records’ revenues from $485 million in 1975 to well over $2 billion last year [1989] – was falling victim to his own power games. Though he’d done time in a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation clinic six months before, Yetnikoff sober seemed harder to deal with than Yetnikoff drunk.  His bitter feuds with key businessmen like Geffen and superstars like Springsteen were killing his industry alliances, and his sidekick and second in command, Tommy Mottola, 42, was challenging his power inside CBS Records.

“Thank you,” Grubman, 47, replied. “And I’ll return the favour – I won’t destroy you just now, either.”

Within the year, though, Yetnikoff was destroyed. On September 4, CBS Records announced that he had “decided to <> step down as head of the company.”

No one believed he’d gone willingly. Wild rumors began swirling through the music capitals of New York and Los Angeles. <>  Everyone was talking about Walter’s Fall, and everyone had a different theory about it: that Yetnikoff’s bizarre behavior had made him a pariah in the industry and even at CBS records.

That a book called Hit Men – a devastating look at the record business that cast Yetnikoff as its leading villain – had torpedoed his already shaky relationship with Sony.

That Geffen, 47, the multimillionaire whose Geffen Records has such huge-selling acts as Whitesnake and Guns ‘N Roses, has helped poison Yetnikoff’s friendship with Michael Jackson so Geffen could lure him to his own label.

That his protégé, Mottola <>had cultivated his friendship and became his right-hand man, and then turned on him and, with Grubman’s knowledge, staged a successful palace coup.

Many of these wild rumors turned out to be true.

…. “Tommy Mottola, aw, he got lucky”. Those words were repeated throughout the industry in April 1988, when Yetnikoff hired Mottola as his second in command, replacing domestic-records president Al Teller, whom Walter perceived as a threat – and fired. “Tommy was my close friend,” says Yetnikoff. “I thought I had made a good choice.”

Few agreed with him. In fact, the industry was shocked by Mottola’s hiring. Apart from an ability to coddle artists, Mottola seemed unqualified for the job: He had no record-company experience, no apparent administrative or executive abilities….

Mottola, a failed pop singer from Brooklyn who owned a management company called Champion Entertainment <>had met Yetnikoff through Grubman in 1977. In the eighties, Mottola had become Yetnikoff’s little brother <>By the time Yetnikoff hired him, Mottola had become indispensable.

“I’m trying to figure out who my friends are,” says Yetnikoff (NY Magazine, Nov.5,1990)

…Yetnikoff began pulling away from some of his old friends, spending more and more time with Mottola. At the end of the business day, Mottola and Grubman would appear in Walt’s office, and the three would hang out and talk about money and power and deals, Walter sipping a drink and doing business with the West Coast and laughing with his two best friends.

“It was Walter’s happy hour,” says a friend of Yetnikoff’s. <>Everybody used to call Tommy his lapdog. It was pretty craven but Walter needed his pals.”

In 1988, Yetnikoff needed his pal to get the record company back on track; the performance of the domestic labels was slipping badly. CBS’s share of Billboard’s Top Pop Album chart had dropped to 18 percent, while arch-rival Warner-Elektra-Atlantic’s share rose to 34 percent. It was Mottola’s job to reverse the trend, so he set about hiring a new management team – one loyal to him, not Yetnikoff.

….When Yetnikoff got back from his movie deals and his dry-out stint, he found that he hadn’t been missed. Mottola’s performance was surprising people. He’d been working hard, breaking acts, cultivating his ties to artists, managers, and executives, making himself the key man that Yetnikoff had once been.

“When Walter was in Hazelden,” says one source, “Tommy got a taste of running things – and liked how it tasted.”

And Yetnikoff, colleagues say, no longer displayed anything close to Mottola’s drive and enthusiasm. Part of it, they say, had to do with his newfound sobriety. <> When Walter was taking the cure,” says one West Coast manager, “he had no social life. I’d come into town and suggest dinner, but he had to go to AA meetings – which is far more important.

Meanwhile, Tommy was wining and dining the artists and the bosses. Mottola’s industry relationships were improving, and Yetnikoff’s were not. His biggest, most ill-advised feud of all was with David Geffen.

At some point during the Guber-Peters negotiations with Warner, Yetnikoff had tossed off a vulgar joke about Geffen. He’d said he wanted a girlfriend to take lessons from Geffen in the performance of a certain sex act; in exchange he’d buy Geffen Records for $1 billion in Sony stock.

NY Magazine Nov.5, 1990.JPG 1“That got back to David from so many people,” says one Geffen friend, “and David decided it was time for a little payback.” Geffen and Yetnikoff had always feuded – they’d be screaming one day, dealing the next. But this was different. The feud didn’t go away.

Last spring, Geffen says, Michael Jackson asked him to include an unreleased Jackson song – a cover version of John Lennon’s “Come Together” – on Geffen’s Records’ soundtrack for the Tom Cruise race-car movie, Days of Thunder. Yetnikoff refused to allow it. <> “I didn’t want him to have the thing,” says Yetnikoff.

It was a small matter, but Geffen’s friends say it enraged him all the same. If Geffen couldn’t get Jackson’s song, maybe he could get Jackson himself – lure him from CBS to Geffen Records. Or, at the very least, make a move to do so and wreak some havoc for Walter.

Geffen’s influence over Jackson was stronger than Yetnikoff’s; he’d been on the star’s board of directors for a decade. After Geffen sold his record company to MCA last March for $550 million in stock, Jackson was awestruck. “Michael likes Guinness Book-type records,” says someone who knows the star well. “Most records sold, biggest deal made. That’s David.”

Yetnikoff had a different reaction to Geffen’s big MCA deal. He sent word to Allen Grubman that the lawyer was to sever his lies with Geffen/MCA and have nothing to do with Geffen. “Friends of my enemies,” he said, “are my enemies.” This annoyed Grubman and Geffen all the more.

NY Magazine Nov.5, 1990 - Grubman

Allen Grubman (screenshot from the NY Magazine Nov.5, 1990)

“Walter thought he owned Allen,” says Geffen. “He didn’t”.

Sources say Geffen wanted to explore the idea of breaking Jackson’s CBS contract. To that end, they say, he had Jackson fire his longtime lawyer, John Branca – an ally of Yetnikoff – and replace him with Geffen’s litigator, Bert Fields. (Jackson had already fired another Yetnikoff ally, manager Frank Dileo, and replaced him with another Geffen crony).

Jackson seemed under Geffen’s control – but Geffen denies having a hand in any of this. “If Michael had been free,” he says, “of course I’d be interested in signing him. But he wasn’t free. Michael changed lawyers because he wanted to – he felt John Branca was too close to Walter.”

Jackson didn’t try to break his contract (which would have paid him $18 million for his next record), but he did send word to CBS that he wouldn’t deliver that record until the contract was renegotiated. “Tommy starts screaming to Sony,” says source, “because Jackson isn’t coming across with product – and it looks like Walter’s fault.” Then Jackson brought in Grubman to help negotiate the new deal. Yetnikoff pitched a fit. Word leaked that Jackson was talking to other labels. Sony was getting tired of Walter’s wild-man act.

Geffen says that none of Jackson’s moves was done to hurt Yetnikoff. “People want to make me out as having more to do with all of this than I had,” he says. “Walter behaves badly, and that’s why he blew up his career, two marriages, and most of his friendships. When people think they’re powerful, the world has a way of reminding them that they’re not. I feel sorry for him, but he shot himself in the head. None of us had anything to do with it.”

..In early July, Random House published Hit Men, Fredric Danner’s best-selling music-business expose. The book lays out the web of alliances that rules the industry – the cozy deals and conflicts of interest, the companies’ reliance on independent- promotion men with alleged mob ties, who are said to spread money and drugs around in exchange for radio airplay. Yetnikoff rages across the pages like a sailor on a three-day pass, making deals and wars and women, defending the indie promoters, acting mighty peculiar at the helm.

Yetnikoff didn’t see an advance copy of the book until a month before publication. But sources say Grubman and Mottola saw it long before – and didn’t share it with Yetnikoff. Published reports have charged that Mottola sent a copy to Ohga in an attempt to discredit Yetnikoff; Mottola calls the charge “absurd”.

Sony president Ohga called Yetnikoff and said, “If you need help because of this, Sony will help you.” (NY Magazine, Nov.5, 1990)

…Yetnikoff says he got a call from Ohga about the book. “Ohga said, “If you need help because of this, Sony will help you,’” Yetnikoff says. “I said, “Naw, it’s just a book – here today, gone tomorrow. I don’t need any help.’”

The crunch came on August 17, when the Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed “executives familiar with the plan,” broke the news that Yetnikoff was “preparing to pull back from his management duties… and leave the chief-executive post in two years”. The most logical candidate to replace Yetnikoff, the Journal reported, was Tommy Mottola.

In a stroke , the story turned Yetnikoff into a lame duck; and industry deathwatch began. Then Yetnikoff launched a counteroffensive, telling Billboard that he had no intention of stepping down after two years.

In the Billboard interview, Yetnikoff denied his strained relations with Jackson and Springsteen. Some public support from the stars would have helped immeasurably. But another article on the same page of the magazine – a rare public statement by Landau [Springsteen’s manager] – did quite the reverse. For many years, Landau said, he and Springsteen “enjoyed a superb professional relationship” with Yetnkioff. “For reasons that remain obscure,” he said, “the relationship ended not long after CBS was purchased by Sony.” The words were mild, but they reverberated through the business. The deathwatch went on.

… Yetnikoff was boiling over. <> CBS executives say he accused Mottola of planting the Wall Street Journal story and threatened to fire him. <> Mottola contacted Shulhof and told him that Yetnikoff was out of control – threatening to fire him, screaming at stars, endangering the bottom line. Mottola, these executives say, told Shulhof that either Walter must go or Mottola and his team would walk. Shulhof called Ohga, and he made his decision. On Tuesday, September 4, the announcement was made: Yetnikoff was out of a job.

As soon as Yetnikoff was gone, rumors began sweeping through CBS Records that Mottola had done him in. Yetnikoff loyalists believe that Mottoal betrayed the man who made him – that the lapdog devoured his master.

…While Ohga decides who should fill Yetnikoff’s chair (or whether to keep it for himself), many people at the company say they’re missing the man who used to sit there. “He was a difficult guy,” say one, “but he was a mensch – and that’s something Tommy is not.”<> “Tommy makes people miss Walter,” one source says,” the way the ayatollah made people miss the shah.”

“Tommy makes people miss Walter the way the ayatollah made people miss the shah” (NY Magazine, Nov.5, 1990)

… Apart from Mottola, who may or may not emerge victorious, there are a few others who seem to be big winners in the fall of Yetnikoff. One is Geffen – clearly the most powerful man in music now that Yetnikoff is out of the way.

Another is Grubman, whose web of power is unsurpassed – he now has a hand in 40 percent of all the records on the Billboard pop charts, by representing the artist, manager, label executive, or label involved in the release.

A third is Jackson, who is close to signing a new $50-million contract with Mottola, who needs to demonstrate that he can keep his superstars happy and productive.

Well, the benefits to Michael Jackson from Yetnikoff’s fall were dubious, but all the others really emerged victorious.  And frankly speaking, if I were someone who could appreciate Geffen’s style I would say that the way he did it was indeed ingenious.

Geffen knew that he would not sign Michael to his label as it was too costly, but nevertheless urged him to break his contract with CBS. Michael did not abide, but as a result of all the persuasion said he would not make another record unless his contract terms were renegotiated. Simultaneously “word leaked that he was talking to other labels”. Sony grew nervous and turned on Yetnikoff of whom they had already grown a little tired. Mottola also blamed Yetnikoff for all the havoc, and all of it resulted in Yetnikoff’s dismissal ….. and Geffen had nothing to do with it.

Except that he sang to his associates “Ding dong the witch is dead”. And couldn’t resist to add a little lie that it was Michael who asked him to include that song into his soundtrack album.

Incredible stuff.

And the funniest thing is that for decades we were forced to discuss Sony, Branca and other horrible characters around Michael Jackson, never knowing that the person who played all the key notes was David Geffen. And please remember that the power grab masterminded by him had a lasting effect on Michael Jackson and determined his future for the next 12 years, at least until Mottola’s dismissal.

But since we knew nothing of the above let me ask a cautious question – how much more are we still unaware of? The described modus operandi is a universal recipe for destruction and could be applied anywhere else, should someone decide to ruin Michael’s career, finances or good reputation. So what if?

By the way the above article is another proof that Fredric Dannen’s “Hit Men” put its hand to the anti-Yetnikoff campaign – otherwise Grubman and Mottola wouldn’t have seen the manuscript before its publication. As well as Geffen and Clive Davis both of whom were supposed to be ‘exposed’ in Dannen’s book, but got familiar with the ‘expose’ well in advance.

Actually it seems that all key players except Yetnikoff saw the draft copy of that book. And not only saw it, but also made corrections to it after which the author removed the episodes most offending to these characters.

As proof of the above see this final piece for today:

New Book on Music Industry Is No Hit With the ‘Hit Men’



Record moguls say the funniest things . . . about each other.

It’s no wonder that over the past weeks fax machines between New York and Los Angeles have been churning out hot passages from Dannen’s graphic portrait of the seamy side of the music industry. But the really hot debate over the book, published by Random House, happened before it went to press.

“Much to my horror,” says Dannen, now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, a first-draft copy of the book leaked out last March and fell into the hands of several key industry figures, including–Dannen contends–Davis, Geffen and top industry lawyer Allen Grubman.

Dannen heard from Geffen’s attorney first. “If Geffen had picked up the phone and called me, everything could’ve been settled in 10 seconds. Instead, he sicked his high-powered attorney, Bert Fields, on us for something in the book that was more an issue of privacy than fact. Fields sent us a nasty note saying he would sue for invasion of privacy, so the dispute got to Mach 3 very quickly.” Dannen would not divulge what specific privacy issue was involved, but said he removed the offending passage from the book.

He heard next from Grubman, who agreed to meet with him last December after Dannen asked for additional information about certain episodes in the book. “As soon as I walked into his office, I realized it was an ambush. It became obvious they had a copy of the manuscript.”

Instead of making a scene, Grubman turned on the charm. “He ordered chicken soup and kreplach for me and then said, in a hushed whisper, that if his mother read the chapter on him she’d die,” said Dannen. “I got to see why he’s such an effective lawyer. With Geffen, everything was a pitched battle. With Grubman, everything was negotiable .”I made a couple of voluntary concessions and let him say a few passages in his own words.

Clive Davis’ attorney also submitted a 10-page letter with changes they wanted, but Dannen said most of what Davis sought to excise was “constitutionally protected opinion.”

“That book went through a legal review that was like the Nuremberg Trial,” Dannen said.

So after spending four years studying the business, what were Dannen’s final impressions? “I only met three execs–Clive Davis, Bruce Lundvall and Russ Regan–who truly had a great love and appreciation for music. The rest? Yetnikoff is tone deaf. Geffen seems to have absolute contempt for his artists. Allen Grubman brags that he never even listens to rock ‘n’ roll.

“The biggest problem with the music business is that it’s become all about power, money and vendettas. It just isn’t about music anymore.”

So not only was the draft copy corrected by its key players, but it also went through the legal review à la the Nuremberg Trial by the attorneys of the main parties concerned – with the exception of Yetnikoff, of course.

And this means that when Dannen was disclosing some details of Geffen’s revenge plan it must have been authorized by Geffen himself. So evidently at times he does allow to take an exclusive peek into his behind-the-scenes operations to show others what fate will befall those who make irresponsible jokes.

What did Yetnikoff say about that book when Norio Ohga offered his help? “Naw, it’s just a book – here today, gone tomorrow. I don’t need any help.”

If he had only known.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2018 3:56 am

    Helena, I thought the same when I read the material I had – that the year 1990 was another fateful year in Michael’s history. Your findings show us that we have to see Michael’s work within the music industry with a new background and from a wider perspective. It’s much more complex than the narrowed, simplified view many fans have regarding Sony and John Branca as the villains who sabotaged Michael’s career and exploit him for their own benefit. I always thought there are other people in the background who pulled the strings, and it seems you come closer to it step by step.
    It must have been difficult for Michael to see through the powers of persuasion of certain people, and he was not immune to the art of courtship some people were masters in. So he sometimes made wrong decisions – no wonder in the climate of this industry with sharks like Geffen. So thank God for those like John Branca who worked the most for Michael’s benefit – at least more than anybody else in this industry.


  2. July 23, 2018 2:48 pm

    “Your findings show us that we have to see Michael’s work within the music industry with a new background and from a wider perspective.” – susannerb

    Exactly, Susanne. My hiatus was not in vain – it helped to understand that while we had been looking into the details of the allegations, largely forced on us as the subject for discussion, all the time a bigger picture was escaping us. And you can’t understand the details unless you look at the whole of it. It is almost like thinking that the Earth is flat and realizing that it is round only after you rise over it.

    “It must have been difficult for Michael to see through the powers of persuasion of certain people”

    Of course. And he wasn’t the only one unable to see through them.

    “It’s much more complex than the narrowed, simplified view many fans have regarding Sony and John Branca as the villains who sabotaged Michael’s career and exploit him for their own benefit.”

    I’m sure that these narrow and simplified views did not emerge on their own. In many ways people were guided in the desired direction. This is why it is important to keep our minds objective, with no bias for or against anyone. The goal is to restore the real picture , and also find out when the players around Michael were just making mistakes (like everyone does) and when their deeds came from ill will, deliberate lies and malicious intentions. There is a fundamental difference between the two.


  3. Jason permalink
    August 14, 2018 11:01 am

    Hello !

    I need to know if it’s true that one of jurors of 2005 after the trial under name “Raymond Hultman” regrets Jackson’s acquittal ?

    It’s in this site :

    And this :

    If yes, you could explain me ?

    Thank you !!


  4. August 30, 2018 12:52 pm

    “I need to know if it’s true that one of jurors of 2005 after the trial under name “Raymond Hultman” regrets Jackson’s acquittal?”- Jason

    Jason, we have a special post to answer your question. It was written in 2010 and I myself have forgotten many of its details but here it is again:



  1. Breaking Down The Biz Part 1/3: Hit Men by Fredric Dannen - Matt Derraugh

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