6/9/2011 Steve Popovich–an appreciation

[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.”]

A screenshot from a YouTube video tribute to the late Eddie Blazonczyk (center), the polka legend for whom Steve (left) released a compilation that I (right) wrote the liner notes for.

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.]


My dear friend Ann Ruckert died Saturday night. I posted an appreciation yesterday at examiner.com, but I left out anything personal.

If you want to know about Ann, here’s the link. Otherwise, May Pang summed things up nicely: “For all who knew her, she was a fixture in our music community and had a very big heart.”

I sent the link to the friend that I mentioned early in this series, whom I ran into, to my great surprise and chagrin, at that first day at the cancer radiation clinic. Still not naming name, he’s another fixture in our music community, thereby another dear friend of Ann’s.

He recalled being included in “that rarified air” of Ann’s famous Sunday “salon” brunches at her West Side apartment, where he got to meet one of his idols, Ann’s close friend and songwriting legend Gene McDaniels (he wrote “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” a big hit for Ann’s friend Roberta Flack) in the dining room.

“I wanted to tell him how much his recordings and songs meant to me but that can be daunting sometimes so it might have been left unsaid,” my friend said. “The only lesson I can take away from this moment is this: Don’t wait. I can’t say I remember if I told Ann how much I admired her passion and strength. A few of my friends have died recently and I don’t know if they knew how much they meant to me.”

Well, my friend, that goes double, triple, quadruple for me. Ann was as much a friend to me as she was to everyone, yet I let my own health and other problems overwhelm me to the point where I fell out of touch and didn’t realize how ill she was, hence never got to tell her how much I, too, admired her passion and strength–and how much she meant to me.”

It’s a lesson I should have learned with Nick Ashford, Steve Popovich, Al Goldstein. Apologies to you all, wherever you are.

At least I know it had to be tacitly understood.

Tales of Bessman: Steve Popovich and the Dream of the Fan Fair Gherm

Today’s the last day of CMA Music Festival in Nashville, which used to be called Fan Fair for many years before the Country Music Association completely co-opted it. I used to go there every year, starting from when it was held at the downtown Municipal Auditorium in the 1970s to the many years it was at the dusty Tennessee State Fairgrounds in the ’80s and ’90s.

Unable to afford much of anything anymore, I haven’t gone in years. But I have recurring nightmares over missing it. Last night’s was a doozy.

Actually, they’re all pretty much the same: I’ve been in Nashville a few days and it’s either my last day or I’m heading back tomorrow. Yet somehow I haven’t seen anyone I need to see–particularly the people I always stay with, have lunch with, hang out with, etc. So I’m completely freaking out.

Making it all worse last night was that I remember parking my car, but don’t remember where I parked it. In fact, I don’t even remember what kind of car it is, color, model, identifying characteristics. I’m frantically searching all over for it when I wake up.

So two days ago I thought I’d take a rare “selfie”–God, I hate that word!–and put it up on Instagram and Twitter, as a tribute to Fan Fairs of old. I tried to look like the biggest Fan Fair gherm–something that still comes natural.

“Gherm,” if you don’t know, is a dismissive label used by Nashville music business folk for the fans who flood the city for Fan Fair, er, CMA Music Festival–or any other time of year, really–and meet and greet their heroes, which is pretty much what Fan Fair was originally set up to do. They’d wear their favorite artists’ t-shirts and badges and caps, much as I did in my selfie (there, I said it again).

But no one was ever a bigger gherm than me, and I say that with great pride. Yes, I had business being with the stars, but I never kidded myself: I was just a big kid from Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, meeting and greeting my country music heroes, just like everyone else.

So even though I couldn’t make it again this year, I decided to put on my best gherm t-shirt and cap and take a Fan Fair tribute selfie (I still hate the word). I put on my Ronnie Milsap cap–in honor of Ronnie’s finally getting into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a lasting friendship that began back at the Dane Country Coliseum in Madison back in the late ’80s–and my orange Cleveland International Records t-shirt, with the caricature of the accordion player who looks kind of like Steve Popovich.

Steve was the founder of Cleveland International Records. He was the sort of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back. He gave me the Cleveland International shirt. One Fan Fair he made up these hysterical “Your brain on Country Music!” t-shirts and gave me one of those, too. I wish I could find it if I still have it. Either way, I wish I could remember it, like I wish I could remember where I parked my car.

It played on those stupid “This is your brain on drugs” TV commercials, where they cut to the eggs frying in a pan. Being on drugs they only made me hungry.

I think it had a cartoon of the eggs in the pan wearing cowboy boots and hats and having a big old time, or something like that. It was really great, I remember, for sure.

And I remember Steve, of course, who died three years ago tomorrow.

No one cared more about music than Steve, who had a huge hand in the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, and put out the Meat Loaf record on Cleveland International and then spent the rest of his life trying to get fairly paid for it.

No one cared more about the little guy, either, or the little guy’s music. He showed me what polka really is, for which I’m eternally grateful.

He had the biggest heart of anyone I knew, and after years of working hard and eating bad, his big heart finally gave out.

I forgot a lot of things, but I can never forget Steve Popovich. No one can.