“I take home, every week, new songs that reach the charts to make sure I don’t go over the hill,” deadpans Clive Davis, one of the most powerful and influential people in the history of the music industry, as we sit down in his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast.
The 85-year-old record producer, A&R executive and record label chief — a four-time Grammy winner who also received the Grammys’ Trustees Award in 2000 and President’s Merit Award in 2009, and who became, in 2000, the first music executive ever voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — has been nicknamed “The Man with the Golden Ear,” having discovered and developed great singers and songwriters for a half-century.
He is the subject of Chris Perkel‘s acclaimed new Apple Music distributed documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, which looks back at his incomparable life and career. But, he emphasizes, the film is no elegy. He still goes in to work every day — as the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, one of the “Big Three” record companies, a position he has held since 2012 — and does what is necessary “to make sure I’m conversant with SZA and DJ Khaled and the new artists of today,” as he puts it, adding, “I love Chance the Rapper, I love Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z — great respect.”
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Davis was born to and raised by working-class parents in Brooklyn. He grew up not especially enamored with music nor with any plans to pursue a career in the music industry. Instead, he won a scholarship to NYU (both of his parents died during his freshman year) and then to Harvard Law School, and subsequently went to work as a non-litigation attorney. At the age of 28, while working at one law firm, he was assigned to the CBS account, which resulted in him handling assignments for its music label Columbia Records, which was then one of the Big Three.
Over the next seven years, his “overall approach, work ethic and standards of excellence” caught the notice of Columbia’s president Goddard Lieberson. A 1966 reorganization of the company made Columbia a subsidiary of CBS/Columbia Group, and a year later, Lieberson, who was now in charge of CBS/Columbia, appointed Davis as president of Columbia, hoping that he would serve as “a great buffer,” in Davis’ understanding, between the A&R and marketing camps which had both been angling for dominance at the label.
When Davis took over Columbia, he says it was a “slightly profitable” operation specializing in easy listening and classical music, and was ranked third among the Big Three. Over the course of Davis’ seven years at its helm, he turned it into a rock and roll powerhouse that was number one. The transformation started in June 1967 when, at the invitation of record producer Lou Adler, Davis and his wife flew from New York to California to attend the Monterey Pop Festival.
“That was my epiphany,” Davis says. Though he describes himself as “a fish out of water” amongst the free-spirited hippies in the audience, he connected with the music that he was hearing and was confident that others would, too, leading to his first major signing, Janis Joplin. Joplin did indeed prove to be a superstar and, through many other signings thereafter, Davis’ “ears” were validated again and again. “Over the next few years, unexpectedly and unbeknownst to me, I did have what’s turned out to be a natural gift,” Davis says. “I found a gift I never knew I had.”
At Columbia, Davis’ other major accomplishments included signing a then-unknown Bruce Springsteen (who he regards as one of two “poet laureates of the world,” along with Bob Dylan) and offering crucial advice to [Paul] Simon and [Art] Garfunkel — “the American Beatles,” in his view — such as convincing them to provide songs for the 1967 film The Graduate and to make “Bridge Over Troubled Water” the first single on their final album. In 1973, though, Davis’ tenure at the label came to an abrupt — and, in his view, terribly unjust — end after he was accused of being part of a payola scheme, was escorted out of the building by security and was fired from his job. “There was no wrongdoing,” he insists, but because of a plea deal that he was encouraged to take, he later lost his license to practice the law. (Decades later, he retook and passed the Bar because, he says, he wanted “no blemish on my personal record.”)
Davis wasn’t out of the game for long. Within a year, he “rose from the ashes” and built a new enterprise, Arista Records, where he expanded his portfolio. “A&R stands for artists and repertoire,” he explains. “At Columbia, I only did artists — that was it. But I then got into the repertoire.” In other words, he not only discovered artists, but also songs for artists who didn’t write their own (e.g. Dionne Warwick) or needed more than they could write (e.g. Barry Manilow). Arista ultimately became the largest independently distributed record company in America, thanks to Davis’ signings of major talents including Warwick and Manilow, as well as Aretha Franklin, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, The Kinks, Iggy Pop, The Grateful Dead, Sean Combs, Carlos Santana and, most famously, Whitney Houston.
Houston, who Davis signed in 1983, became his greatest protege — he found every song she ever recorded — and he remains her biggest fan five years after her death. “The three greatest singers of all time are Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston,” he asserts. “Whitney could do anything.” Houston died at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, where she was set to attend Davis’ annual pre-Grammys gala, the hottest ticket in town. “Her death was just a tremendous shock,” he says. “I had just been with her 48 hours before, and she was vibrant and looking forward to making a new album.”
In 2000, BMG, which had acquired Arista in 1985, tried to force Davis, who was 68 and “at the height of my career,” out of the label that he had founded 26 years earlier. BMG did so because, in Davis’ view, they felt he was making too much money — but BMG quickly came to regret it when Davis left to start J Records and all 18 of his top executives at Arista followed him out the door. BMG ultimately invested a sizable amount of money in Davis’ new venture, where he proved as adept at ever at identifying incredible new talent, including Alicia Keys — and just two years later, BMG asked Davis to serve as chairman and CEO of RCA Music Group and then, in 2008, as chief creative officer for all of Sony Music Entertainment.
“That was very gratifying,” Davis says with a smile. “Is there drama along the way? Are there challenges along the way? Is there need for belief and resilience? Yes.” Speaking of Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, he adds, “This is no puff piece. This is a dramatic story of four to five decades in the wonderful music business.”