[This is a piece I originally wrote for examiner.com, now defunct. As I was tweeting about Steve a lot yesterday–and think about him so often–I want this to remain available. We must never forget those who are so important to us, and as Gregg Geller said, “Steve Popovich is not replaceable.”]
There’s nothing better you can say about a man than “he would give you the shirt off his back,” and Steve Popovich, who died in Murfreesboro, Tennessee yesterday at 68, would truly give you the shirt off his back–and you wouldn’t have to ask.
Indeed, there’s at least one Examiner who has a closet full of them.
Of course, they’re big shirts. Popovich’s shirt size was extra large, for he was a big man, obese, to be sure, who made his annual trek to the Duke University “Fat Farm,” as he called it, and over the last few years he did seem to be making some progress in eating healthy and dropping a few pounds. But the years of working hard and eating bad had clearly put a fatal strain on his heart–though as big as his belly was, he had an even bigger heart.
But his big heart let him down in the end, at least it appears so ahead of the determination of official cause of death–and probably in more ways than one. Simply put, as much as he loved his family (the Cleveland native, who never forgot his working-class, ethnic roots, had moved to the Nashville area, where he once held court, to be with his radio producer/artist manager son Steve Popovich Jr. and two grandchildren), he loved all humanity, really, and all music–but not so much the business of music.
Not that he didn’t excel at it. The “widely loved” Popovich, according to Nashville music historian Robert K. Oermann in today’s Musicrow.com, was “one of the most colorful record executives in the history of Music Row.” After helping establishing the likes of Santana, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Mac Davis and Chicago during a stint at CBS Records in the 1960s and ’70s, he became vice president of A&R at Epic Records, where he signed or helped guide the careers of Michael Jackson, The Jacksons, Cheap Trick, The Charlie Daniels Band, Ted Nugent, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones and Boston.
He also famously ran his own label Cleveland International Records, home of Meat Loaf’s 1977 album debut Bat Out Of Hell, one of the biggest-selling albums ever, said to be at 40 million units sold worldwide. But he became embroiled in years of litigation with Sony, which distributed Cleveland International, over millions of dollars in unpaid royalties and its failure to print the Cleveland International logo on reissues of the album.
Cleveland International’s original artist roster also included Ian Hunter and country music legend Slim Whitman. From 1986 to 1988 Popovich ran Mercury Records in Nashville, where he signed legendary artists including Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, polka king Frank Yankovic, Lynn Anderson, Billy Swan and Johnny Paycheck.
He returned to Cleveland to restart Cleveland Interational in 1995, and released albums representing his typically wide musical interests with titles from Grammy-winning polka acts Brave Combo and Eddie Blazonczyk & The Versatones, as well as a series from country music great David Allan Coe. Popovich himself was rightly inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame in 1997.
But the son of a coal miner in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, who startedf out in the music industry by unloading trucks at a Columbia Records warehouse in 1962, long expressed frustration with the business as it related to the less mainstream music that he so often championed.
In one of many loving and telling Facebook tributes posted as word of his death spread, fellow Nashville music business veteran Neal Spielberg recalled a late 1980s Country Radio Seminar panel where an audience member complained that the labels weren’t taking chances in Nashville. “Hey, I signed 60-year-old polka singer Frank Yankovic to my country label. Don’t tell me I’m not taking chances!” responded panelist Popovich.
In another post, artist manager Mark Spector called Popovich “a kind and generous man who was a mentor to so many at Columbia in the early ’70s. He had a passion for records that was infectious.” For veteran entertainment producer Chip Rachlin, his death marks “the end of an era”; wrote Gregg Geller, who worked with him at Epic, “Steve Popovich is not replaceable.”
Geller’s comment capped a memorial sent out to a network of Popovich’s business associates, in which he confirmed that his former boss did in fact sleep in his office, that is, if he ever slept at all.
“When you worked for Steve you were on the job 24/7 because he was working 24/7—there was simply too much music and too little time!” noted Geller. “I’ll never forget heading out to his place in Freehold–a two-hour drive–at 4 a.m. only to turn around and head back to the city at 7 a.m., stopping for coffee on the run, his Camaro strewn with half-listened-to cassettes.”
Half-listened-to, Geller explained, “because he just couldn’t wait to get on to the next tape.” And while he could introduce his associates to hip discs like Ian Hunter’s “All The Young Dudes” and a fistful of singles from England’s Stiff label, “if Steve Popovich believed that ‘After The Lovin’’ by Engelbert Humperdinck was a hit record, you had better believe it was a hit record! There were audiences out there in the real world, the world Steve lived in, waiting to be entertained. Our job was to provide for their entertainment.”
Entertainment–and spiritual enrichment. For Steve Popovich, the two went hand-in-hand.
He may not be known to the general public as a music industry giant on the level of the Ahmet’s, the Clive’s, or the Walter’s who were his contemporaries, but Steve Popovich was every bit the great record man they were and so very much more, always his own man–and an uncommon music man of and for the people. All the people.
[The Examiner wrote CD liner notes for several Cleveland International releases.]