Cleveland International rocks again: Legendary record label readies for relaunch (vintage photos)By John Petkovic, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- That memory is burned into Steve Popovich Jr.'s mind, even if it seemed so insignificant at the time. After all, he was only eight.
"I went to elementary school really close to my dad's office on Music Row," says Popovich, referring to the strip in the heart of Nashville’s country music industry. "So after school I would go to his office and do my homework and wait for him to finish work so we could go home."
There was nothing remarkable about the office or even the area. Again, he was eight. But there was something about that VCR repairman.
"One day, I was lying on the couch bored and my dad tells to go into a conference room and watch a movie," says Popovich. "So I go in there and see some guy on his knees in front of the TV messing around trying to hook up the VCR. And then he looks back and says, 'All good.'"
No big deal – except that the guy fixing the VCR was The Man in Black himself.
"I grew up in a household where you could have Johnny Cash fix the VCR and not give it much thought," says Popovich. "He was a friend of the family and loved my dad... everyone did."
Story by John Petkovic, The Plain DealerPhoto by John Petkovic, The Plain Dealer
Years later, that moment underscores just how different his childhood was and the unique path his life would take. But it's the love of his father – Steve Popovich -- that has inspired junior to honor his dad the only way possible.
Steve Popovich Jr., 39, is relaunching Cleveland International Records from his home in Nashville, Tn.Ray Matjasic, The Plain Dealer
“This was my dad’s calling card in life,” says Popovich Jr., a graduate of Lake Catholic High School. “It also defines who I am in many ways. I worked at the label as soon as I got out of high school . I did the mail outs, did the inventory, went to all these conventions and record stores. We worked side-by-side and did everything together. I got my education working with my dad and I want to follow in his footsteps with the label.”CBS Records
Founded in 1977, the Cleveland-based record company ceased operations when its founder Steve Popovich passed away in 2011. The label will always be associated with Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” which has sold 43 million copies, making it the third best-selling album of all-time.
The multiplatinum collection of mock-operatic rock ’n’ roll rhapsodies yielded several hit singles, including “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”
It was one of many successes for Popovich, a record industry maverick who played a vital role in the careers of the Jacksons, Boston, Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent and Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band.Steve Popovich, far right, in Los Angeles in the 1970s with Michael Jackson, Boz Scaggs and Jackson's brother, Randy. Plain Dealer Historical Photo Collection
“My dad is responsible for the careers of so many big bands and one of the biggest albums in rock ‘n’ roll, but he treated all of his artists with the same respect and love,” says Popovich Jr. “He treated everyone with respect, whether you were the gas station attendant or a record label executive.”1979 press photo of David Allen Coe via The Times-Picayune
Cleveland International released a wide range of acts, from polka king Frankie Yankovic to country bad boy David Allen Coe to Grammy-winning polka-rock-roots outfit Brave Combo to rock ‘n’ roll legend Ian Hunter.A late-1970s press photo of Ian Hunter courtesy of Chrysalis Records
The long list of releases includes Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks,” a rock classic that has become Cleveland’s unofficial anthem. The song is also part of a 1995 compilation album of the same name that marks the relaunch of the label.Cleveland International Records
“We’re reissuing the album on Friday, April 5 and we’re looking at doing a ‘Cleveland Rocks’ weekend in Cleveland, with events around town,” says Popovich Jr. “This album was a source of pride to my dad and to Cleveland and it’s the perfect way to do a relaunch.”
“Cleveland Rocks” includes tracks by Meat Loaf, Ronnie Spector & The E Street Band, Southside Johnny, the Rovers and Euclid Beach Band. The release also caps off a long, sometimes tortured path back for Cleveland International.Scott Shaw, The Plain Dealer
Popovich, who was 68 when he passed away in 2011, scrapped and fought throughout his career – for his bands and for his survival in business.
A native of Nemacolin, Pa., he moved to Cleveland when he was a teenager, following the death of his father, a coal minerPopovich performing with Frankie Yankovic in New York, 1976. Plain Dealer Historical Photo Collection
By the early 1960s, Popovich was playing bass in a band called the Twilighters and unloading trucks at a local Columbia Records warehouse.
“He loved Frankie Yankovic and called him in the hospital when he heard that Frankie was sick, even though he didn’t even know him,” says Popovich. “He was a fan of music and loved polka and Frankie responded by helping my dad land his first job in the business.”The Plain Dealer
He moved to New York in 1968 to work Columbia’s promotions department and became vice president of promotions for the label’s parent company, CBS Records, in New York City.
After the Jackson 5 left Motown, Popovich signed them to Epic Records in 1975. “I've always gone with my gut,” he told The Plain Dealer in 2009.A 1970s photo of Popovich with his promotions staff. Courtesy Steve Popovich Jr.
Popovich oversaw promotions for everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to Ian Hunter and was named the top promotions executive in the business by Billboard.A 2005 photo of Steve Popovich by Scott Shaw, The Plain Dealer
“Steve was totally in love with music and was a man on fire,” says Hunter, via phone from his home in Connecticut. “I remember going to the Columbia Records office and they had these row of secretaries sitting there answering phones. Then I got to Steve’s office and his secretary was a totally frazzled; her hair was a mess. And then I walked into Steve’s office and found out why: He had a phone in each hand carrying on, talking into both phones while smoking a cigar or a cigarette. I don’t know how he was able to do it.”Popovich's tattered briefcase said it all: POLKA POWER. Photo courtesy Steve Popovich Jr.
Hunter also remembers him always hustling his first love: polka.
“He loved it more than anything,” says Hunter. “He was telling me all the time that I needed to start playing polka music. And I’m like, ‘Polka? Isn’t that Polish or something? Are you crazy? No.’”'Pops' and his son, Steve Popovich Jr.
Ever the iconoclast, always a restless spirit and a man with a hundred different dueling ideas in his head – and a true-blue lover of Cleveland and his Rust Belt roots -- Popovich resigned from CBS in 1976 and returned home to launch his Cleveland International label.Plain Dealer Historical Photo Collection
"My dad was loyal to and believed in the heartland and working-class people that he wanted to get something going in Cleveland,” says Popovich Jr., who plans to release a live album of his father’s band, the Twilighters, recorded in 1965 in the old Torch Light in Mentor.
Cleveland International put out recordings by a wide variety of national and Midwestern artists. He also started managing Hunter when the British rock legend and Mott the Hoople singer recorded his ode to Cleveland, “Cleveland Rocks.”
“Cleveland became a joke on these late-night TV shows, but I always thought that Cleveland was the hippest place in the country – because they were hip to Mott the Hoople and we always had our best shows there,” says Hunter. “Steve was very much like Cleveland – working-class and genuine, a rocker who stood out from all the posers.”Cleveland International Records
Popovich championed his adopted hometown.
“Keep your eye on Cleveland,” read a Cleveland International ad. “It’s where the new breakouts are coming from.”Steve Popovich and friends. From left: John Belushi, Meat Loaf, Popovich and Karla DeVito, who toured with Meat Loaf and appeared in the "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" video. Photo courtesy of Cleveland International Records
“His legend and shadow are cast on the city’s music scene and brought great pride to the city,” says Greg Harris, president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “But he was also one of the great music industry figures in the tradition of so many independent label founders. He heard something that millions embraced when others so close to it didn’t and bucked popular opinion and stood up to the industry.Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection
Popovich embraced the heartland and Cleveland. The label’s biggest release went all around the world – even if it was one of one of the most unlikely hits in music history.
More than a dozen record companies passed on releasing Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell.” . He was an overweight misfit singing songs that were too long and way too operatic for rock radio.
“It was the day and age of the wimpy-looking, Peter Frampton-types," said Popovich, in a 2002 interview with The Plain Dealer. “Then here comes Meat Loaf, this huge guy with an amazing voice.”Photo of Meat Loaf and Steve Popovich showcasing platinum records. courtesy Steve Popovich Jr.
Radio stations were slow to embrace to the record, but Popovich was persistent.
“Here was this guy working out of his house in Willoughby Hills calling people all around the country and calling in every favor to get the album played,” says Anastasia Pantsios, a Cleveland photographer who took a number of photos for the label.
“Labels would throw something against a wall and would give up if it didn’t catch a buzz, but Steve was a monster,” adds Panstios. “He turned what everything thought would be a sure-fire flop into one of the biggest hits of all time. When he believed in something you couldn’t stop him.”Popovich in front of the Stone Pony, the Asbury Park, N.J. club that hosted countless early Bruce Springsteen shows. Photo courtesy Steve Popovich Jr.
Popovich doggedly worked the record for more than a year -- radio station by radio station, region by region -- until the misfit became a chart-topper.
Getting paid for the album was even harder. The album was distributed by the Epic division of CBS Records, which later became part of the Sony empire.Courtesy Steve Popovich Jr.
Meat Loaf's breakout album, "Bat Out of Hell," was a huge success for Steve Popovich and Cleveland International Records. Popovich, in the back row second from right, is shown here celebrating with Meat Loaf backstage at Blossom Music Center after a 1978 concert.CBS Records
“Even though my dad had a hit with ‘Bat Out of Hell,’ he was often running low on money because he had a hard time getting royalties,” says Popovich Jr.
In 1995, Popovich and his former partners sued Sony for unpaid “Bat Out of Hell” royalties. The case was settled out of court for nearly $7 million.
As part of the settlement, Sony was required to place the Cleveland International logo on reissues of “Bat Out of Hell.” When Sony failed to do so, Popovich sued the company again. A jury awarded him an additional $5 million in damages in 2005.
After the second ruling, Popovich cried in the hallway outside the courtroom and hugged jurors.
“They send in their Harvard lawyers. What do I have?” said Popovich at the time. “One year in college and my hard work.”A 1985 photo of Steve Popovich and his son, Steve Jr. Diana McNees, The Plain Dealer
He still had to work to pay the bills, which often seemed insurmountable.
“People thought he had all this money, “ says Popovich Jr. “He had lawyers and these people he had to pay and ended up going broke several times.”An undated photo of Popovich and Kris Kristofferson, courtesy of Steve Popovich Jr.
Popovich moved to Nashville in 1986 to become a senior vice president at Polygram Records, where he worked with country superstars such as Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. It was in this city where he raised his family, Steve Jr. and daughter Pamela, until they returned to Cleveland in 1995.Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection
Popovich was an outlaw and he loved Cash, the quintessential outlaw. He also hated the slick direction country music was taking and how its pioneers were being ignored.
“Johnny Cash had been dropped from his record label and my dad stepped in,” says Popovich. “My dad said, ‘If Johnny Cash is over then country music is over’ and he couldn’t accept that.”Mitchael J. Zaremba, The Plain Dealer
Steve Popovich loved country music and always supported its icons, like Johnny Paycheck -- even when the industry had moved on to slicker pop pastures.Popovich, left, with MCA Records exec Al Teller and Johnny Cash. Photo courtesy of Steve Popovich Jr.
"All good music is roots music -- that's what makes it real," Popovich once said. His love of "roots" music inspired the revival of Johnny Cash's career in the 1980s. Popovich hated the slick direction country music was taking and how its pioneers were being ignored. One of Popovich's first moves after landing a record-label job in Nashville was to resurrect the Man in Black.Steve Popovich regularly went to the Beachland Ballroom while in Cleveland. Photo by Scott Shaw, The Plain Dealer
A decade later, Popovich decided it was time to come back and get Cleveland International going again. He released records by Brave Combo, which won a Grammy for its 1999 Cleveland International release, “Polkasonic.”
But the battles took their toll.
“When he came back to Cleveland, he was so bitter about the music industry,” says Beachland Ballroom co-owner Cindy Barber. “But his love of music never ceased. He would come to the club often and never asked to get on the guest list. He insisted on paying to get in because he wanted to support the bands.”Popovich proselytized for polka all the time. He even turned Meat Loaf on to Frankie Yankovic. Photo courtesy of Steve Popovich Jr.
In 2003, he dragged record-industry mogul Seymour Stein to Cleveland from New York to hear an upstart area band, the Black Keys – years before the Akron duo hit it big.
“He always kept returning to his roots, whether it was his people or his music,” says Popovich Jr.
Popovich loved to turn people on to music, often in his SUV, where he played his music loud.
“He always had a stack of CDs on the dashboard,” says Popovich Jr. “He’d have all kind of things – from polka discs to demos from some songwriter no one had ever heard of.”Photo by John Petkovic, The Plain Dealer
Popovich moved to Nashville for the last time in 2008. Popovich Jr. had moved there three years earlier with his family to work for Sirius XM as a producer for Little Steven Van Zandt, a longtime family friend and the founder of the “Outlaw Country” radio channel.
The son is following in those footsteps with the relaunch of Cleveland International.
“We’re looking at everything from polka to rock to ska to punk to hip-hop,” says Popovich. “If we believe in it we’ll put it out – and we’re going to focus on music from the heartland. It’s the same approach my dad took.”A Billboard magazine story on Popovich's landmark cases against Sony
“I don’t have any issues with Sony anymore and don’t hate them,” adds Popovich. “It was the people that were at the time I have a problem with – the people that were there at the time of the disputes who could’ve done the right thing but chose not to.”
After the settlement, Popovich Jr. was already planning on his move – one that would come a full six years later.
“I’ve wanted to restart Cleveland International since 2012,” says Popovich. “But there was so much to do in handling the estate. It’s been a long road back.”Popovich, left, wiith Cleveland International staffers Bill Catino, left, and Marty Mooney, center. Courtesy Steve Popovich Jr.
Of course, the times are very different now – and Popovich Jr. plans to adapt to it.
“The Cleveland International has never been available for digital or streaming and we plan to do a clothing line and merchandise and sell records in non-traditional stores and outlets,” he says. “I’m also making a documentary on my dad’s life and career.”Photo courtesy Steve Popovich Jr.
“But I’m planning to stay true to what my dad did,” he adds. “My dad was a pied piper for music and fought very hard for his bands and his label.”
That fight thing is key to Cleveland International going forward.Courtesy Steve Popovich Jr.
His easy-going spirit and warm personality and charm made him more than a promo guy and music mogul. He connected with music and people -- and ended up developing personal friendships with countless artists, including Canton-born rock icon Boz Scaggs.Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection
“If Steve Jr. has anything like his dad did in terms of determination and passion for music then Cleveland International should do well,” says Hunter. “Steve Popovich was a genuine man with passion in a sea of bacteria – and that’s what made him such a record industry great.”Popovich singing polkas with Frankie Yankovic and friends. Courtesy Steve Popovich
Popovich's first loves stayed with him to the end. They came out of growing up in the coalfields of southwestern Pennsylvania -- when workers would come together to play tamburitza or polkas or folk music.
“It was a melting pot for all types of nationalities, from Polish to Italian to Jews to Croatian to Serbs," says Popovich Jr. "He was a working-class guy who loved music and had zeros pretensions. He was a great guy."