Steve Popovich

Founder of Cleveland International Records who broke 43 million seller Bat Out of Hell

Steve Popovich, as an A&R exec, label head, and label founder signed, produced, and promoted Meat Loaf, the Jacksons, Johnny Cash, Cheap Trick, Boston, Ian Hunter, Wild Cherry, the Iron City Houserockers and many more artists.  As the founder and President of Cleveland International Records he broke Meat Loaf's 43 million selling “Bat Out of Hell album”.   Starting out at Columbia Records as a truck loader he rose to become vice president of promotion and A&R before he left to found his own recording label.  During the '70s he was the VP of promotions at Columbia and its sister label Epic promoting new acts to radio.  In 1974 Popovich became Epic’s A&R VP talent scout. He signed Boston, Cheap Trick, the Jacksons, Dave Logins, Jaco Pastorious, Charlie Rich, Joe Tex, Wild Cherry, The Charlie Daniels Band, and Ted Nugent to Epic’s Roster. Popovich left Epic to found Cleveland International Records in 1977 signing little known singer Meat Loaf.  After the “Bat Out of Hell” success Popovich signed BJ Thomas, The Rovers, Ian Hunter, Mick Ronson, Tom Jones, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, Ronnie Spector and The Iron City Houserockers to Cleveland International.  Popovich became the head of Polygram’s Mercury Records in Nashville in 1986 where he signed Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Lynn Anderson, Johnny Paycheck and other country artists.   Popovich re-started Cleveland International in 1995 as an independently-distributed label.   As a producer and/or label executive, Popovich was responsible for six Grammy Award nominations.  He was executive producer of the album "70 Years of Hits With Frank Yankovic," which won a Grammy for Best Polka Recording in 1986.  As strong supporter of tamborizta music, he was inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame in 1997.  Popovich was also a founding member of the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.

During his career Steve Popovich fought on behalf of artists for unpaid royalties. He sued distributor CBS Records in 1995 for unpaid royalties for Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell album winning a $7 million in an out-of-court settlement.   He won another $5 million when CBS left Cleveland International's logo off reissues of the “Bat Out of Hell” album.  Using accounting games and inflated costs, records labels have told many hit selling artists that their albums lost money and they own the label for their advances and promotion/production costs.  Popovich believed that CBS/Sony embodied corporate America’s practice of screwing over the little guy to get ahead.  Using the legal the discovery process and sources inside CBS/Sony he obtained internal sales statements and gave them to the artists.  He forced Sony to pay the artists what they truly earned.  In interviews with Roadell Hickman of the Cleveland Plain Dealer Popovich said "I'm one man against a multinational corporation….Harvard lawyers and Sony think they can cheat people out of their hard work because people are too scared to take them on….Well, they took on the wrong guy. . . . I don't give a [expletive] what some corporation thinks about me."

Born in 1946 Steven Popovich, a native of Nemacolin, Pa. grew up listening to Sebro-Croationa folk music and 1950’s Rock N Roll.  He loved a wider variety of music.  His coal miner father played in a tamburitza band.  On weekends his father and his coal mining friends gathered together to play tamburitza music, polkas, and ethnic folk music from Poland, Italy, Croatia, and Serbia.  In an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer Popovich said  "I'm just a hunky from Western Pa."  During high school Popovich played bass guitar in a hillbilly band called Ronnie and the Savoys that released a single titled "Slappin's Rods and Leakin' Oil".  While Steve was in his senior year his father died.  After graduating from Cumberland Township High School in Carmichael, Pa, he moved with his mother and sister to Cleveland.  In Cleveland he joined the Twilighters who released the single "Be Faithfull that reached reach number 13 on station WKYC in 1962.

With the help of "Polka King" Frank Yankovic he got a job in 1962 loading trucks at a Columbia Records' Cleveland warehouse for $30 a week.  He worked his way up from inventory control, to the sales desk, to local sales, and to regional radio and TV promotion. Popovich was promoted to Columbia’s national promotions staff working in New York as the assistant to the director of Promotions from 1969-1972.  At age 26 be became the youngest VP at Columbia when Clive Davis appointed him Vice President of Promotions.  Popovich was awarded “National Promotion Man of the Year for 1972-1973 by Billboard Magazine.  He moved to Columbia’s Epic label as VP of A&R working with working with Epic head, Ron Alexenburg from 1974 through 1976.  With the many successful artists that Popovich signed to the label Epic’s annual revenues grew from $15 million to $100 million.

One of the bands the Popovich signed to Epic was Wild Cherry.  The band recorded their song “Play That Funky Music at the Cleveland Recording Studio in Cleveland.  Owner/engineer Ken Haman took the tape to Mike Belkin and Carl Maduri, Cleveland concert promoters, who were starting a custom label to be distributed by Epic.  Looking for their first recording project Belkin and Maduir took the tape to Steve Popovich.   Popovich liked what he heard, signed Wild Cherry to Epic and promoted the single making it and the Wild Cherry album million sellers.

Mr. Popovich left Epic to found the Cleveland International label in 1977.  With distribution through Epic, the first single released by Cleveland International was "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" from Ronnie Spector & The E Street Band that was produced by Steve Van Zandt.  Attorney David Sonenberg and Steve Van Zandt brought Popovich an album produced by Todd Rundgren featuring a singer who had appeared in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  The tape had been rejected by every major label including CBS.  Popovich listened to the tape and signed Meat Loaf after hearing him perform live.  After a remix of the “Bat Out of Hell” album Popovich convinced WMMR in Cleveland to break the record.  Meat Loaf took over Cleveland with sold out shows at the Agora, the Music Hall, and Blossom.  WNEW in New York added the record breaking it on the East Coast.  With sales reaching $120,000 Epic wanted Popovich to stop promoting the record and move on to another project.  Popovich kept on promoting the album.  It went from 500,000 sales in May of 1978 to a 1 million Platinum seller by September.  CBS/EPIC was now in love with Meat Loaf.   The album went on to become one of the biggest selling albums of all time.  It is currently fifth on the list of all time sellers with 43 million in sales.

In 1977 Joe Grushecky heard about the launch of Cleveland International Records and sent a demo tape of his band Brick Alley to Steve Popovich.  After receiving a call from Steve, Joe Grushecky and the band made several trips to Cleveland to record.  Steve Popovich and Marty Mooney, calling themselves the Slimmer Twins, financed the recording sessions and produced the “Love’s So Tough” album.  Steve landed the band a four album distribution deal with MCA Records.  Popovich announce the band’s MCA signing with an ad in Billboard calling them the Iron City Bluesbusters.  The band insisted that they be known as a rock band and the name was changed to the Iron City House Rockers. For their second album Popovich brought in Ian Hunter and Steve Van Zandt for song arrangements and Mick Ronson as a co-producer with the Slimmer Twins.  The “Have a Good Time but Get out Alive!” album was called a "New American Classic" by Rolling Stone magazine.  The House Rockers third album Blood on the Bricks was produced by Steve Cropper in 1983.

In 1986 Popovich was offered a Senior VP position at Polygram Records in Nashville.  Seeing that country music market was wide open, Popovich closed down his rock label. He built the Polygram country music roster signing Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck the Everly Brothers, Kris Kristofferson, Wayne Toups & Zydecajun, Donna Fargo, David Lynn Jones, and more.  He promoted the music of Statler Brothers, Tom T. Hall, and Kathy Mattea   He produced special projects like The Class of ’55 Album featuring Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.  He also signed Frank Yankovic who won the First Polka Grammy in 1986. 

Popovich left Polygram in 1995 to reactivate the Cleveland International label.. He released 10 albums in 1995.  The roster included David Allan Coe, the Singing Nuns, Chas & Dave, Michael Learns to Rock, and Roger Martin.  He also record and release several polka albums promoting the tamburizta music that he grew up with and loved.  He signed Chicago polka artist Eddie Blazonczyk and Frank Yankovic.  Brave Combo a polka/rock band won a Grammy Award in 1999 in the Best Polka Album category for their album Polkasonic.   Steve Popovich died suddenly at age 68 at his home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in June of 2011.


Rock and Roll and the Cleveland Connection by Deanna Adams

Cleveland Plain Dealer Photo
Paradise by the Dashboard Light - Meat Loaf
Popovich's Band - The Savoys

Michael Jackson, Boz Scaggs, and Popovich
Steve and Johnny Cash 1986
Popovich and Van Zandt

Steve and Ian Hunter
Steve Popovich Sr. and Junior