Record executive Steve Popovich, who headed Mercury Records’ country division from 1986 to 1987, died Wednesday (June 8) at his apartment in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He was 68. The cause of death has not been determined.
Born to a coal miner father and a union organizer mother in Nemacolin, Pa., Popovich absorbed a variety of ethnic musical styles in his youth, ranging from tamburitza to polka. After his father’s death, his mother moved the family to Cleveland. There the brash youngster persuaded polka king Frank Yankovic to help him get a job at the local Columbia Records warehouse. Within a year, he went from unloading Columbia’s trucks to selling its records and quickly climbed the corporate ladder. By the time he was 26, he was the label’s vice president of promotion and working out of New York on behalf of a roster that included or would soon include such legendary artists as Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire and Bruce Springsteen.
In 1976, Popovich left Columbia to form Cleveland International Records, which would be distributed by Columbia. His biggest success in this new enterprise was Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell album in 1977. It has since become one of the best-selling records of all time. Popovich would later sue Sony, the company that bought Columbia/Epic, for unpaid royalties and win. He was involved in a spinoff suit with Sony over the album at the time of his death.
In 1986, he took over Mercury Record’s Nashville operations, the most anemic of the major country labels at that time, with only the Statler Brothers and Kathy Mattea registering significant sales. An outspoken believer that labels should be loyal to artists who had helped them prosper, Popovich signed and released records on such “discarded” acts as Cash, Johnny Paycheck and Donna Fargo but with minimal success.
He left Mercury in 1987 and returned to Cleveland in 1993. He continued to record acts as diverse as Yankovic and country outlaw David Allan Coe. The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper reports that funeral arrangements are being made by Monreal Funeral Home in Eastlake, Ohio, and that burial will be at Western Reserve Memorial Gardens in Chesterland, Ohio.