Former Cleveland music executive Steve Popovich, who died Wednesday in Nashville at age 68, wasn’t like most people in the music business. Even while working with major labels, he retained a passion for music that was genuine and sincere, no matter how offbeat, obscure, or unpopular. He demonstrated what sheer belief and tenacity in the face of an army of naysayers could accomplish when he moved back to Cleveland from New York in the mid ’70s to form Cleveland International Records to promote a record that had been passed over by every major label: Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, released in 1977.
Popovich was born in the southwestern Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Nemacolin and moved to Cleveland in the late ’50s. He played with one of Cleveland’s pioneering rock bands, the Twilighters, part of a small group of popular local R&B-based bands who launched the area rock scene in the pre-Beatles era. He also landed a job with the local branch of Columbia Records, where his enthusiasm and ear for music were quickly noticed. He was soon on his way to New York where he became a vice president at the label and promoted artists like the Jacksons, Cheap Trick, Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, and Bob Dylan.
In 1976, unable to convince Columbia (or any other label) to take a chance on Meat Loaf, he left the label and set up shop in his home in Willoughby. There he and his small team worked tirelessly on the album until it became a multi-platinum smash, eventually selling some 40 million records. Popovich ran Cleveland International until 1982, releasing records by Pittsburgh’s Iron City Houserockers, Bat Out of Hell vocalist Ellen Foley, Meat Loaf songwriter Jim Steinman, Ian Hunter, and Ronnie Spector, among others.
His musical taste was quirky, but there was method to his madness. He often backed older artists who seemed passé to most people — Tom Jones, the Irish Rovers, Slim Whitman, BJ Thomas. He felt that music did not lose its value once it passed its popularity peak and shouldn’t be summarily discarded in favor of something new and shiny.
He continued to act on that belief when he took over the helm of Mercury Nashville in 1986. At a time when Nashville was shoving older artists out the door in favor of a wave of newcomers, he signed Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Donna Fargo, and the Everly Brothers, and put together a tribute to Sun Records artists of the ’50s, featuring Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison.
Popovich’s first act at Mercury Nashville reflected that philosophy. It was also indicative of another of his lifelong crusades: promoting the Eastern European immigrant culture that was a hallmark of both Nemacolin and Cleveland and that he saw as core to his identity. He reissued a group of albums by Cleveland polka king Frankie Yankovic and used his position to help bring new attention to Yankovic’s music. The same year, Yankovic won the first-ever polka Grammy, giving Popovich another tool to advocate for renewed interest in Yankovic’s music, something he continued to do for the rest of his life.
In the mid 1990s, Popovich moved back to Cleveland where he revived Cleveland International as a label for oddball artists without much commercial potential that he personally believed in, among them country rebels David Allan Coe and late Clevelander Roger Martin, British musical hall act Chas & Dave, and Danish pop group Michael Learns to Rock. In addition to promoting Yankovic (who died in 1998), he released music by Chicago polka artist Eddie Blazonczyk and polka compilations. His unflagging dedication to the music resulted in his induction into the Cleveland-style Polka Hall of Fame in 1997.
A couple of years ago, Popovich moved to Nashville to be closer to his son Steve Jr. and his grandchildren. But he returned to Cleveland often, where he would be found hanging out at the Beachland. His loyalty to Cleveland and to his own immigrant roots was unflagging. He talked about writing an autobiography focusing on the contributions of immigrants to this country and at one point tried to persuade Steve “Little Steven” Van Zandt to write a rock opera about Eastern European immigration to America. He could drive people crazy jumping from one off-the-wall idea to the next, losing and regaining interest at the drop of a hat. But his ideas were heartfelt and never the sort of opportunistic schemes the music industry is known for.
He had also devoted much of the last decade to his crusade against music industry accounting practices, fighting a series of lawsuits against CBS Records, which distributed Bat Out of Hell. Eventually he won millions of dollars from them. But he never stopped being outspoken about what he saw as the unfairness of record companies, especially to artists, often pointing to the lack of payments he believed were due to Yankovic’s widow Ida.
Popovich also drove friends and family crazy with his erratic commitment to his health. He engaged in a lifelong battle with his weight and was known for his frequent stints at a weight-loss clinic at Duke University. Having outlived his family life expectancy by decades (his father died in his 40s), Popovich had recently been a proponent of the vegan heart-health diet promoted by the Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. Alas, it did not allow for the meaty eastern European cooking Popovich loved almost as much as he loved polka music.
In addition to Steve Jr. and his family, Popovich is survived by his daughter Pam. — Anastasia Pantsios