Steve Popovich Passes

When Steve Popovich signed Johnny Cash to Polygram in 1986, the label exec and polka aficionado presented the star with an accordion to welcome him to the label. Photo: Alan Mayor

Steve Popovich, one of the most colorful record executives in the history of Music Row, died suddenly on Wednesday (6/8) at age 68.

Often described as a “maverick,” he was the head of Mercury Records in 1986-88 and ran his own label, Cleveland International Records, from 1976 onward. At Mercury, he signed Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, polka king Frank Yankovic, Lynn Anderson, Billy Swan and Johnny Paycheck. Under his stewardship, the label also marketed The Class of ’55, a landmark LP that combined the talents of Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.

His Cleveland International roster featured the country comebacks of B.J. Thomas and Donna Fargo. He also brought Tom Jones to the country charts and produced his albums.

Beginning in 1966, Steve Popovich spent 10 years at CBS Records. There, he was instrumental in establishing the careers of Santana, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Mac Davis and Chicago. Known as one of the industry’s top radio promoters, he created pop “crossover” hits for Cash, Anderson, Marty Robbins and Ray Price.

Rising to an A&R vice presidency at Epic Records, he signed Michael Jackson, The Jacksons, Cheap Trick, The Charlie Daniels Band, Ted Nugent and Boston.

Photo credit: Scott Shaw, The Plain Dealer. Click for photo gallery.

At Cleveland International, he made a star of Meat Loaf. The artist’s Bat Out of Hell LP is one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, reportedly now at 40 million in worldwide sales. In 1995, Popovich sued Sony for unpaid royalties on the record and reportedly won nearly $7 million in an out-of-court settlement.

When Sony failed to use his Cleveland International logo on subsequent pressings of the record, Popovich sued again. This time, he was awarded $5 million in damages by a jury.

Steve Popovich was born July 6, 1942 in Nemacolin, PA as the son of a coal miner, and he was proud of his working-class roots. He moved to Cleveland as a teenager and played bass in a band called The Twilighters. His first record-industry job was unloading trucks at a Columbia Records warehouse in 1962.

During his two decades at CBS, Steve Popovich affected the careers of dozens of top stars. Boz Scaggs, Loggins & Messina, Janis Joplin, Tony Bennett, Taj Mahal, Andy Williams, Johnny Winter, Janet Jackson, Jeff Beck, The Hollies, Sly & The Family Stone and Nashville’s Dr. Hook, Joe Tex, Dave Loggins, Charlie Rich and Michael Martin Murphey were all promoted by him.

His Cleveland International roster included Ellen Foley, The Rovers, Ronnie Spector, Slim Whitman, Ian Hunter, The Iron City Houserockers and Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes. The company’s revival in 1995 included marketing music by David Allan Coe, Brave Combo, Eddie Blazonczyk and Michael Learns to Rock.

Among his other accomplishments as a Nashville executive, he brought the entire national PolyGram Records sales convention to Nashville in 1988. More than 150 of the label’s top executives convened for a week-long series of meetings at the Opryland Hotel.

As a producer and/or label executive, Popovich was responsible for six Grammy Award nominations. He was involved with the first polka-music Grammy and with The Class of ’55 Grammy in the spoken-word category. He was inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame in 1997.

Steve Popovich with his son Steve Jr. Photo: C.J. Flanagan/NashvilleScene.com

The widely loved executive died at his home in Murfreesboro. The cause of death has not been determined.

Son Steve Popovich Jr. is also in the Nashville music business, as a radio producer and artist manager. His father had remained near Music City in order to be with his son and two grandchildren. He is also survived by daughter Pamela Popovich and sister Barb Lemmo.

Funeral arrangements have not been finalized. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Monreal Funeral Home in Eastlake, Ohio will be handling them and that burial will be in Western Reserve Memorial Gardens in Chesterland, Ohio.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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