He was both an industry insider and outsider, working at major labels — at one time or another he was a VP at Columbia, Epic and Polygram Nashville — but also founding Cleveland International Records, where he achieved his greatest fame for putting out Meat Loaf's seminal album Bat Out of Hell. He also was a key player in the careers of Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, The Jackson 5 and Boston, to name a few.
He was a tireless music lover who frequently championed lesser-known artists who didn't fit any molds: acts like David Allen Coe, Chas and Dave, the Singing Nuns and a number of luminaries from the polka world — Frankie Yankovic, Eddie Blazonczyk and Brave Combo. In fact, in 1997 he was inducted into the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of fame, and from the little I know about Steve Popovich, it was probably one of his proudest moments.
About a year ago, I was in the Green Hills Whole Foods when I saw a 60-something guy pushing a grocery cart. He was wearing a Cleveland Indians cap, and had that unmistakable, no-nonsense, Cleveland-working-class vibe. I can't say he exactly resembled the late Harvey Pekar, but he had that same Rust Belt demeanor — it's hard to articulate, but you know it when you see it (particularly if, like me, you grew up in Cleveland).
Curious, I asked him if he was from Cleveland, and sure enough he was. We talked about Cleveland sports a little, and after about 10 minutes of reminiscing about our hometown, we introduced ourselves. "You're Steve Popovich?" I blurted out incredulously. I'd known about him for years, and I would have never guessed this unpretentious, self-effacing fellow was the man behind the legend. I saw him a few more times after that, and we'd always stop and chat about the hopeless state of Cleveland sports teams, or our mutual acquaintances.
In the next few months, I have a feeling we'll be reading a lot more about the storied career and colorful personality of Steve Popovich. For starters, here's John Petkovic and John Soeder's piece from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
What eats at me the most right now is that several times over the last year, I said to Scene editor Jim Ridley that I though Popovich would make a great profile in the paper, or that we should definitely feature him in our next People issue. I was hoping I'd have the chance to sit down and interview him one day, and I'm genuinely sad I'll never get the chance.
I heard the news of his death about an hour ago from Corrado Savarino, proprietor of Savarino's Cucina in Hillsboro Village, who said that he'd just had dinner with Steve on Saturday, and that they'd had a wonderful time and he seemed in good spirits. We can only assume his death was sudden and unexpected.
Our thoughts go out to Steve Popovich Jr., who worked with his father at Cleveland International, as well as to all of the Popovich family. He was one of a kind.