Charles Koppelman, Force in the Music Industry and Beyond, Dies at 82
Charles Koppelman, a longtime music executive who worked with Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Tracy Chapman, Wilson Phillips and Vanilla Ice, among many other artists, and later steered the companies of Martha Stewart and the fashion designer Steve Madden through periods of turbulence, died on Friday at his home in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 82.
His son, Brian, said the cause was cancer.
For decades, Mr. Koppelman was a player in the upper ranks of the music industry, acting variously as dealmaker and superstar matchmaker. Seldom pictured without a Cuban cigar and a jovial grin, he relished the excitement of striking big deals and the lifestyle that went along with being a top executive in music’s high-flying 1980s and ’90s.
“I really love what I do,” Mr. Koppelman, taking a puff from a Cohiba Esplendido, told Cigar Aficionado magazine in 1993, when he was the chairman and chief executive of EMI Records Group North America.
His career took him from the songwriting cubicles of New York in the early 1960s to CBS Records in the ’70s, where he ran the music publishing division and the artists and repertoire department and worked with artists including Billy Joel, Janis Ian and Journey. Later, the Entertainment Company, which he helped found, signed numerous songwriters and was involved in the making of hit records like Ms. Parton’s “Here You Come Again” (1977) and “Guilty” (1980), Ms. Streisand’s duet with Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees.
In the 1980s, Mr. Koppelman and two associates, the financier Stephen Swid and the music executive Martin Bandier, carried out one of that period’s most lucrative music transactions. In 1986, they purchased CBS’s publishing unit — which controlled the copyrights to about 250,000 songs, including evergreens like “Over the Rainbow” and “New York, New York” — for $125 million. Barely two years later, in early 1989, they sold it to Thorn-EMI, the corporate parent of the British label EMI, for $337 million, the richest price ever paid in music publishing to that point.
In the years following that deal, as EMI’s top recorded-music executive in the United States, Mr. Koppelman oversaw hugely successful records like the 1990 debut album by Wilson Phillips, the pop trio made up of daughters of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas.
“He’s like King Midas,” Carnie Wilson of Wilson Phillips said of Mr. Koppelman to New York magazine in 1992. “Everything he touches turns to gold.”
Charles Arthur Koppelman was born on March 30, 1940, in Brooklyn, and grew up in Laurelton, Queens. His father, Irving Koppelman, worked at a printing press, and his mother, Ruth (Lerman) Koppelman, was an assistant to the principal of Far Rockaway High School, which Charles attended.
A sports aficionado, Charles grew up intending to become a physical education teacher. But while he was enrolled at Adelphi University, he and two classmates formed a vocal group, the Ivy Three. In 1960 they had a hit with “Yogi,” a novelty track that mixed the tale of a yoga master — “a kook who was standing on his head” — with catchphrases of the cartoon character Yogi Bear. It went to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
Mr. Koppelman was credited as one of the songwriters, and, though he spoke-sung lyrics like “I’m a Yogi, baby,” he always noted that he was the least musically proficient of the group.
“As a matter of fact, I really can’t sing,” he told The New York Times in 1980.
The Ivy Three never had another hit, and Mr. Koppelman served for a time in the Coast Guard. But the success of “Yogi” led him and Don Rubin, another member of the Ivy Three, to the mogul Don Kirshner. His company Aldon Music was one of the top songwriting shops in New York at the time, employing a deep bench of hitmaking writers like Neil Sedaka and the teams of Carole King-Gerry Goffin and Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich.
Outshined by those writers, Mr. Koppelman found himself on the management side of the company and was drawn to the business of music publishing: handling the work of songwriters and maximizing the earnings from those copyrights.
In a story Mr. Koppelman was fond of telling, he was at a music industry function early in his career when he saw one group of executives, dressed plainly and nervously chain-smoking cigarettes — record company men, he was told. In another part of the room were the music publishers, wearing fine suits and contentedly enjoying cigars.
“That’s what I want to be involved in,” Mr. Koppelman decided, as Brian Koppelman, a film and television producer who is one of the creators of the show “Billions,” recounted in an interview.
In 1965, Mr. Koppelman and Mr. Rubin started a production company, Koppelman & Rubin Associates. They signed the Lovin’ Spoonful (“Do You Believe in Magic”) and worked with songwriters like Tim Hardin, whose song “If I Were a Carpenter” became a Top 10 hit for Bobby Darin in 1966, in a version that was produced by Mr. Koppelman and Mr. Rubin.
After the pair sold their company, Mr. Koppelman went to work at CBS. In 1975 he formed the Entertainment Company with the real estate developer Samuel LeFrak and Mr. Bandier. Mr. Koppelman developed a close association with Ms. Streisand, serving as executive producer on a string of her albums in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
In 1986, after Mr. Koppelman and Mr. Bandier had left their partnership with Mr. LeFrak, they teamed with Mr. Swid — an investor in furniture companies, Spin magazine and the “21” Club — to buy CBS Songs, the music publishing division of CBS Inc. They also set up a new company, SBK Entertainment World, which took its name from the three men’s initials.
After they sold the CBS catalog to EMI, the music industry and Wall Street were atwitter over whether CBS had sold it for too little or EMI had paid too much. Mr. Koppelman and Mr. Bandier joined EMI, and SBK was made a joint venture with it.
In 1985, while Brian Koppelman was a student at Tufts University, he saw Tracy Chapman perform at a coffeehouse and encouraged his father to sign her as a songwriter. He did, and Ms. Chapman’s debut album, released by Elektra Records in 1988, went to No. 1 and established her as a major talent.
SBK quickly put itself on the pop map with Wilson Phillips and Technotronic (“Pump Up the Jam”). It also had a huge hit in 1990 with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” which became the first rap song to reach No. 1 on the all-genre Hot 100.
Though Vanilla Ice soon became a laughingstock when it was revealed that the gritty back story in his official SBK biography was fictitious, Brian Koppelman said his father never regretted releasing “Ice Ice Baby” and knew from the moment he heard it that the song would be a hit.
In addition to his son, Mr. Koppelman is survived by his wife, Gerri Kyhill Koppelman; two daughters, Jennifer Koppelman Hutt and Stacy Koppelman Fritz; a sister, Roz Katz; and seven grandchildren.
Mr. Koppelman left EMI in 1997, and he came to develop a specialty working with troubled brands. He was the chairman of Steve Madden Ltd. from 2000 to 2004, a period that included Mr. Madden’s conviction and sentencing for securities fraud. In 2004, the year Ms. Stewart was convicted of obstructing a federal investigation into her stock transactions, Mr. Koppelman joined the board of her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. He served as the company’s chairman from 2005 to 2011.
For a time in the mid-2000s, he also worked as a financial adviser to Michael Jackson. In later years, Mr. Koppelman’s company, CAK Entertainment, negotiated brand deals for celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj and Adam Levine, and he was an adviser to the estate of Prince.
In interviews, Mr. Koppelman was often asked to explain his success, and his stock answer was that it was a combination of smarts, luck and hard work.
“Was I lucky that my son went to Tufts and heard Tracy Chapman?” he asked in an interview with New York magazine. “Was I lucky that the guy walked in the door and gave me the Lovin’ Spoonful? You bet I was. But I’m also a workaholic.”