More than four decades ago, a team of three music business veterans, working out of a home in Willoughby Hills, launched what would prove to be one of the bestselling rock & roll albums of all time.
Led by the tireless, passionate Steve Popovich, who had adopted Cleveland as his hometown after moving there in his late teens, this trio — which also included two other seasoned music biz guys, Marty Mooney and Bill Catino — defied the prevailing music business modus operandi of the time, which was to throw out dozens of releases and quickly abandon any that did not catch on immediately. Instead they release Meat Loaf’s debutBat Out of Hell in September of 1977 and kept on working it and working it until, a year later, the artist was being awarded a platinum album onstage at Blossom Music Center. It eventually sold more than 40 million copies.
Cleveland International was conceived by Popovich while he was working for Epic Records in NYC, where his rising career had taken him after he began working for the local branch. The Todd Rundgren-produced demo was making the rounds and being rejected over and over by every major label. Popovich heard something others didn’t, and got funding from Epic to start his own label to release it. He came back to Cleveland to do so.
After a run of just under a decade, in which he released music by the Iron City Houserockers, Ronnie Spector, Ellen Foley, Ian Hunter and the Euclid Beach Band, among others, Popovich moved to Nashville in 1986 to head Mercury/Polygram’s branch there. He hadn’t forgotten Cleveland though: his first act was to reissue some albums by Cleveland polka king Frankie Yankovic. One of them won the first-ever polka Grammy.
In 1996 he moved back to Cleveland and reactivated the label, bringing his song Steve Jr to work alongside him in that final iteration, based in the Agora building, which lasted through 2003. Steve Sr. became embroiled in lawsuits over Bat Out of Hell, many of which were pending when he died in 2011.
‘After [my father] had passed away, his estate was extremely complicated,” says Popovich Jr. “There were various claims against the estate that I had to deal with. There were a few lawsuits filed after my father passed away. It was extremely exhausting. I just knew I didn’t want my kids to see me the way I saw my dad and what he went through with the lawsuits. I spent a tremendous amount of time looking myself internally, figuring out what the best decision was for me and my family. I felt it was in the best interest to close that chapter for once and for all, and move forward to carry on his legacy in another manner.”
Late last year, Steve Jr. settled the lawsuits and announced the re-launching of Cleveland International for its third go-around. That starts April 5 with the re-issue of the label’s 1995 Cleveland Rocks! compilation. It includes tracks by Meatloaf, Ian Hunter, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Jim Steinman, Ellen Foley and the Rovers, among others.
Popovich Jr. says the idea to re-launch “had been simmering for a while.”
“When my father’s estate was finally settled after seven in a half years after his passing, it seemed like the perfect segue to relaunching Cleveland International,” he says. “Home is where the heart is and it was time for me to pick up where he left off. I knew how much this label meant to him so to now be in this position is quite an honor. This isn’t about me, it’s about him, an opportunity to pick up that torch and carry on his legacy.”
The re-launch includes an apparel line, which is already up and running, the re-issue of 10-15 albums from the label’s back catalog, a documentary in the works about his father’s life and career, and signing new artists along the lines of the music his father loved: “music that appeals to heartland America.” Given that his father was also a major fan of polka music, that’s also in the plans.
“We’ll be putting out Frankie Yankovic, Eddie Blazonczyk, re-issuing Brave Combo’s Polkasonic (which won the 1999 polka Grammy) and Live from the Beachland album,” he says. “The spirit of the label will always be spirit of my father, carrying on the music he was passionate about.”
Look for an announcement of a listening party in Cleveland in early April. Although Popovich Jr is based in Nashville, he’s hoping to eventually open an office here.
“I’m going to try to make it up this year, trying to figure out a way to get Cleveland International Records involved in the community, with the eclectic mix of music we’re going to put out,” he says. “My dad was very loyal to not only what he believed but also to Frank [Yankovic] who gave him his first job in the music business. He said, never forget where you came from and never forget the people who got you where you were.”