Walter Yetnikoff, the fiery former CBS Records Group chief who guided Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and others into superstardom, died Sunday night at a hospital in Bridgeport, Conn. Considered the most powerful man in the record business in the 1980s, he was two days shy of turning 88.

Yetnikoff’s wife, Lynda, confirmed the death, giving the cause as cancer.

President and CEO of CBS Records Group from 1975 to 1990, he was the chief executive of Columbia and Epic when Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller, Joel’s The Stranger and Springsteen’s Born in the USA were released. He would also put together the $2b sale of CBS Records to Sony in 1988 to create Sony Music Entertainment.

The company rose from doing less than $500m in sales per year to $2b over the course of his 15-year tenure.

Yetnikoff told Michael Sigman in HITS’ The History of the Music Business 2, “I felt that I understood that artists, if they are not supported, are very vulnerable. And I was sorta tone-deaf; I couldn’t read music, but I developed a feel for the excitement of the artists, the visual component, and I had a sense of how the audience would react. I worked at it until I could hear what sounded like a hit.”

A lawyer, he joined CBS Records as in-house counsel in 1962 at the request of Clive Davis, moving to CBS Records International in 1969, a year after he formed a JV with Sony in Japan. At CBS International, he helped break Johnny Nash and Mott the Hoople.

Longtime CBS chief William S. Paley promoted Yetnikoff to president and during his tenure at CBS, he lured Paul McCartney and James Taylor to the label, developed Gloria Estefan and Cyndi Lauper and paired Barbra Streisand with Barry Gibb, which resulted in her biggest seller, Guilty. Chicago, Boston and Earth, Wind & Fire skyrocketed in popularity under his watch and the importing of The Clash and Elvis Costello from England gave the label group cachet in the new wave.

Columbia signed Mick Jagger as a solo artist in the mid-'80s and distributed Rolling Stones Records from 1986 to 1991; Bob Dylan returned to the label after a two-album stint at Geffen.

He also famously embraced MTV and was crucial in getting the cabler to play Jackson’s “Billie Jean” by threatening to withhold videos by all other CBS artists.

He told Rolling Stone in 1988, “When I first took this job, there were two ways to go. One was not to get involved with the artist and just run the business. And one was to get very involved with the artist. That’s where a lot of the fun is. I am in awe of these people. My role is as rabbi, priest, guru, banker, for sure, adviser, friend, psychotherapist, marriage counselor, sex counselor, you name it. Punching bag. I don’t want to personalize this—I’m not the only one in the company with relationships. But when something is really serious, I have a big hammer.”

Yetnikoff stepped down in 1990, replaced by Tommy Mottola, an exec he'd hired. The Washington Post reported, "His departure came five weeks after the publication of The Hit Men by Random House, an expose of the record industry in which Yetnikoff has been a major player since 1971. The book charged that the industry is rife with deals, drugs and payola... Whether disclosures in The Hit Men... had anything to do with Yetnikoff's hastened departure also was a matter of industry speculation. The book was the first to attack the people and politics involved in running the industry, including Yetnikoff, Clive Davis of Arista Records and David Geffen."

In 1996, at the age of 63, Yetnikoff formed VelVel Records, which was best known for reissuing albums by The Kinks.

His book with David Ritz, Howling at the Moon: Confessions of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess, was published in 2004. In it, he described how significant a role drugs and alcohol had played in his daily life when he ran CBS Records. He spent the early part of the 21st century volunteering at recovery centers in and around New York City.