March 1, 2019
Steve Popovich, left, and Steve Popovich Jr.
One of the great “record men” of the glory days of the music business, the late Steve Popovich rose through the major record company ranks before founding his own indie label, Cleveland International Records in 1976 and releasing Meat Loaf’s massive hit album Bat Out of Hell the following year.
Popovich’s son Steve Popovich Jr., himself a veteran satellite radio and music industry exec who began working at the label while in high school during its second incarnation (1995-2003), is now reviving it for its third go-round with the April 5 CD/LP re-release of its 1995 label roster compilation Cleveland Rocks. Available for the first time in vinyl, the set has new artwork to go with the original’s repertoire of 13 key artist tracks including Bat Out of Hell’s classic “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” Ronnie Spector & the E Street Band’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes’ “I Don’t Wanna Go Home” and the Ian Hunter titletrack “Cleveland Rocks.”
The remaining tracks are Just Us Girls’ “Time Warp,” Iron City Houserockers’ “Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive,” Euclid Beach Band’s “There’s No Surf in Cleveland,” The Boyzz’ “Too Wild to Tame,” Essence’s “Sweet Fools,” Mike Berry’s “I Am a Rocker,” The Rovers’ “Wasn’t That a Party,” and Bat Out of Hell songwriter Jim Steinman’s “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” and its backup singer Ellen Foley’s “We Belong to the Night.”
Cleveland Rocks is now available for pre-order at Amazon. In the works are the first-ever digital reissues of as many as 15 of its back-catalog albums on digital platforms for the first time, likely to include titles from David Allan Coe, polka king Frank Yankovic, Iron City Houserockers and Brave Combo. The newly rejuvenated label also looks to sign and break new artists.
Before launching Cleveland International, Steve Popovich was the youngest VP of promotion for CBS Records, and later became VP of A&R. The son of a Pennsylvania coal miner who started his music career unloading trucks at a Columbia Records warehouse in 1962, then worked for the label into the ‘70s while promoting the careers of artists including Santana, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Mac Davis and Chicago. As VP of A&R at the CBS Records label Epic Records, 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.
At Cleveland International, Popovich’s artists, besides Meat Loaf, spanned the likes of Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter and country music legend Slim Whitman. Three years after the label first closed in 1983, Popovich was appointed senior VP of Mercury/PolyGram Records in Nashville, and signed artists including Johnny Cash, the Statler Brothers, Kris Kristofferson, Frank Yankovic, the Everly Brothers, Tom T. Hall, Kathy Mattea, Donna Fargo, Lynn Anderson, Billy Swan and Johnny Paycheck. After leaving the label and returning to Cleveland, he relaunched Cleveland International in 1995.
Reflecting his own eclectic music tastes, the second coming of Cleveland International expanded from its pop-rock roots into polka and rock, scoring a Best Polka Album Grammy in 1999 for Brave Combo’s Polkasonic. Popovich also released albums from Grammy-winning polka great Eddie Blazonczyk & The Versatones and outlaw country music hero David Allan Coe.
Inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame in 1997, Popovich, who died in 2011, never forgot his working-class and ethnic roots, or his many friends in and out of the business.
“My dad’s story is pretty fascinating: Here’s this guy who went from growing up in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania to become one of the most beloved and respected people in the history of the record business,” says Popovich Jr., who handled everything from inventory control to overseeing the catalog--including production, artwork, manufacturing, distribution, promotion and marketing of the Cleveland International releases and those of its subsidiaries.
“We were a two-man company for the better part of those years, and working that closely with him on a daily basis—and observing the tenacity with which he dealt with every aspect of the setup and launch of an album’s release--was like getting a masters degree.”
Popovich Jr. will now run Cleveland International out of Nashville.
“The idea to relaunch had been simmering for a while,” he adds, “when my father’s estate was finally settled after seven and a-half years after his passing, it seemed like the perfect segue to me to transition away from my company [label services company Wrecking Ball Entertainment] to relaunch Cleveland International. Home is where the heart is, and it was time for me to pick up where he left off."
Now, “This means everything to me,“ he continues. “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.”
Popovich Jr. is also working on a documentary about his father’s life. He says that Cleveland International will launch an apparel line and will be involved in other creative projects besides digital releases and signing and recording new artists.
“There are several opportunities we are looking at,” he says, adding, “I’m extremely excited to relaunch the label and for people to know that we are back in business.”