Shuffle: Cleveland International Records Spinning Again

Mar 7, 2019

A music label with deep roots in Northeast Ohio is poised to make a comeback through a combination of reissues and new albums covering everything from rock to polka. This week’s “Shuffle” looks at the past and future of Cleveland International Records, which includes one of the biggest selling albums of all-time.

Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” came out in 1977. At the time, John Gorman was program director at WMMS radio in Cleveland.

“At first listen it was like, ‘this is like an operetta; I’ve never heard anything like this.’”

But Gorman wasn’t listening to the album in his office. He was at a house on Cleveland’s east side where his friend Steve Popovich lived. Popovich had just left Columbia Records to start Cleveland International Records. And Gorman said signing Meat Loaf was a perfect example of Popovich’s ear for music.

“He said, ‘every single label turned us down. Everybody hates this band. The label I was with, they don’t want to touch the guy. I’m going to put him out on my own label.’”

The album has sold more than 14 million copies.

Connecting with the Polka King
But the story of Cleveland International actually began much earlier. Steve Popovich, Jr., said his Dad connected with America’s Polka King – Frankie Yankovic from Cleveland – after Yankovic was in a serious car accident in 1963.

“It was in the paper – in the classified section – that the Columbia Records warehouse was looking for an inventory boy. My Dad, not knowing Frank, called the hospital, got through to Frank Yankovic [and] told him he grew up on his records. And he asked Frank if he would help him get a job in the Columbia Records warehouse there in Cleveland.”

By the end of the 1960s, Steve Popovich, Sr., had risen at Columbia to become Vice President of Promotions in New York. He worked with major bands like Cheap Trick and Boston. But his heart was always home in Cleveland and in the mid-1970s, he moved back and started his own label to be distributed by his former employer. John Gorman, then of WMMS, remembers one of the label’s first releases.

“He had Ronnie Spector doing a Billy Joel tune, backed by the E Street Band. There was nobody else -- except Steve Popovich -- that could’ve put that together.”

That first single was a regional hit, and so were others like “I Need You” by the Euclid Beach Band. But it was Meat Loaf who exploded out of Cleveland and put the label on the map.

Stopping and re-starting
Still, there were conflicts over royalties with the parent label, Columbia Records, and Cleveland International folded – for the first time – in 1983. A decade later, Popovich returned to Cleveland and re-started his company, this time with help from his teenage son.

“We did two albums called ‘Frank Yankovic and Friends’; both those albums were Grammy-nominated. We had a band from Denton, Texas, called Brave Combo, who’ve been on ‘The Simpsons.’ And we won a polka Grammy with them back in 1999. And then we had a label with David Allan Coe, called Coe Pop Records.”

But around that time, the elder Popovich sued Sony Music – which by then controlled distribution of “Bat Out of Hell” – for unpaid royalties. He sued again when he noticed the Cleveland International logo was missing from CD copies of the album.

Steve Popovich, Jr. (left), worked alongside his father in the 1990s and early 2000s in every facet of running Cleveland International Records. He relaunched the label last fall and next month will issue the 'Cleveland Rocks' compilation digitally and -- for the first time -- on vinyl.
Credit STEVE POPOVICH, JR.

Going digital
At the same time, the business was becoming more difficult for independent labels. John Gorman explained: “The industry was going through a lot of changes. You had deregulation in radio, and Steve could not get his music played because now the radio stations are owned by a handful of companies.”

By the early 2000s, digital downloads were also changing the way listeners purchased music and Cleveland International folded for a second time. Steve Popovich, Sr., passed away in 2011. With his father’s estate settled, Steve, Jr., wants to relaunch the label this year with a reissue of a compilation of songs from the glory days.

“Meat Loaf, Ian Hunter, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Iron City Houserockers, The Rovers; it’s a great mix and I thought it was very appropriate, in me re-launching the label that that be the first release we put on the label.”

The album also includes Ronnie Spector and the Euclid Beach Band, and will be followed by 10 to 15 other reissues from the vault. And although he’s remaining in Nashville, Steve Popovich, Jr., plans to search around the country for new acts to sign. But he makes it clear that he’s only co-president of Cleveland International Records and that his father will always be president of the label.

“I’m just a young man picking up the torch for my old man.”

Shuffle is WKSU’s weekly spin through Northeast Ohio’s music scene.