Clive Davis Talks New Career-Spanning Doc, Whitney Houston's Brilliance

With the release of 'The Soundtrack of Our Lives,' music-industry legend reflects on five decades in the business

His white tennis sweater made him feel like an outsider, but watching Janis Joplin perform at 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, Clive Davis first tapped into the communal power of rock & roll. "I felt my spine tingle and my arms vibrate," he recalls in The Soundtrack of Our Lives, a new documentary that traces the famed record executive's monumental 50-plus-year career. "I realized this was going to be the future. I could feel it in my bones."

A Harvard-educated lawyer who stumbled into the music business in the early Sixties, proved his bona fides at CBS Records and was quickly named president, Davis found success wherever he went. Whether at CBS, or later at his own Arista Records and J Records, Davis worked with artists from Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead to Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and the Notorious B.I.G. But as The Soundtrack of Our Lives, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April, hit theaters last week and comes to Apple Music today, shows the 85-year-old was as much a devoted music fan as a keen businessman. "Music became my passion. I still love it today. I'm immersed in it," Davis tells Rolling Stone. "Look," he adds,"I think music is the universal language."

Director Chris Perkel talked to friends and collaborators including Carlos Santana, Bob Weir, Sean"Diddy" Combs, and Aretha Franklin, who calls Davis "the greatest record man of our time." "We all wanted to be Clive Davis," says Combs, who in the early Nineties received crucial financing from the executive for his Bad Boy Records. Patti Smith says, "Clive really has a weakness for artists," and it's the relationships he has fostered over the years that come through most powerfully in the film. Having praised heaped on him by the A-list artists he's worked with "is such a gratifying feeling," Davis says. "You're getting back at you a perspective which is very reaffirming and very, very emotionally affecting."

The film's smaller moments also pack a punch, including Paul Simon recalling how Davis championed "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as an unlikely single, or the executive addressing his own bisexuality which he first revealed in his 2013 memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life. In the film's most gripping sequence, Davis tears up when watching a stunning early performance of his close friend Houston, who died of a drug overdose in 2012.

"We must make sure the great voices continue to be heard," Davis, who remains a vital force in the music industry and hosts an annual star-studded pre-Grammy party, told Rolling Stone in a wide-ranging interview. "The beat goes on."

How did this documentary come to pass?
When my book came out it did extremely well, and I received a number of calls on the subject of a biopicture. But I told [talent agency] William Morris, who had been the conveyor of the interest on a film on my life, that I would prefer to go the documentary route. They conveyed to me the interest of a number of directors and I met with several and was really impressed by the Ridley Scott firm and by Chris Perkel in particular. So they took the ball from there. I was not involved after that other than being interviewed for it and making available my archives.

Does it remain a strange proposition to see your life played back to you?
It's hard to separate the life I've lived with my career, with contemporary music. Because it does span 45 to 50 years. It also involves the great artists of our time. It's hard to separate that from the interest in me. Going from Joplin and Springsteen through Whitney and Barry Manilow and Alicia Keys you get insight into the contemporary music business. I consider myself fortunate that over five decades, and in a very tough business environment, music has provided a lifetime of unexpected pleasure and gratification. I just got back from France and from London and I've seen the film at the Newport Folk and Jazz Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival, and when I see that the film gets through with audiences and they have an emotional response on many different levels, whether it's my life or the story of Whitney, for example, I've got tell you, it's emotionally very compelling.

You seeing Janis Joplin perform at Monterey seemed a pivotal turning point in your career. Does that experience still stand out after all these years?
There's no question. There's no word other than epiphany that really took place there. Here I was, unexpectedly the head of Columbia Records. And it was certainly a daunting challenge to someone who never expected to be in music. I had spent a year or so seeing the various elements of the company. And then unexpectedly, without any notice, I'm at this Monterey Pop Festival. And I was the outsider. I couldn't believe it was a cultural revolution, a social revolution and clearly a musical revolution. I knew I was in the midst of something unique and profoundly deep and I acted on that instinct. In the signing of Joplin, of Big Brother and then the Electric Flag, and then a few months later Blood Sweat & Tears. There's no doubt it was the Monterey Festival that started it all. What would have happened if I had not been there? Would I have recognized how deep and profound it all was? Would I have seen so quickly the effect of the amplification of the guitar? I've never really thought too much about it because I was there. But it is, in retrospect, a once-in-a-lifetime epiphany and a profoundly impacting and effecting event.

One of the most endearing moments in the film is the clip of you on TV promoting Springsteen's debut album and reading the lyrics to "Blinded by the Light" aloud.
I had forgotten about that [laughs]. I had never seen it, to be honest with you. So I was shocked to see it in the film. Why I did it, why I recited the lyrics? Well, it was coming at a time when other folk-rock artists – Tim Hardin, Eric Andersen – and talented musicians and writers were all being lumped as another Bob Dylan. It was the type of categorization which made it very difficult to get your own voice heard. So what I said is "I don't want this artist, Bruce Springsteen, to be called another Bob Dylan." Objectively and retrospectively the two of them have become the poet laureates from America of this past century. But I read the lyrics to the album because I wanted to show that of course Dylan is great but here is someone coming along with entirely different imagery and entirely different lyrics.

Under your leadership at CBS Records, rock music became big business, but when you founded Arista in 1974, you quickly branched off into mainstream pop.
In the Columbia years, they were almost all rock artists. Joplin breaks through and Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago and Santana and Aerosmith; obviously the success of them starts build my confidence. '"My God, wow. Could I have a natural gift that I never knew? I'm being shown 10, 15 artists and I'm picking this one or that one." When I began Arista I was starting in effect from scratch but wanting it to be an instant major. I felt like, "Look, as wonderful as rock is, when you're trying to really be a major and go after any artist, I have to use the repertoire for artists that don't write or don't write enough hits for themselves." Fortunately right at the outset with Arista we had "Mandy" from Barry Manilow, the first record ever released on Arista, and it went to Number One. The deal was Barry gives me two songs he wrote on every album and each of those two songs became signature copyrighted hit records. ... So then it was the repertoire, it was the songs, it was the success of Barry Manilow that enabled and opened up the horizon to sign a Dionne Warwick, to sign the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and obviously led to signing Whitney Houston.

And yet you continued to work with monumental artists each with a unique viewpoint, from the Grateful Dead to the Kinks, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
The mission was still to attract unique artists, whether it was the first rock group, the Outlaws, or whether it was the signing of Patti Smith or the Grateful Dead or the rebuilding of the Kinks. I just had a wonderful reunion with Ray Davies, in fact, at the London premiere of the film. So yes, we used Columbia as a model and continued to attract and work with both new and established artists. But although we were strong in New Wave and roots rock – we attracted Lou Reed and Graham Parker and Iggy – we had to have mainstream success to be considered a major.

It's very apparent that the connection you had with Whitney Houston was a special one.
Without question signing her and experiencing the uniqueness of her talent is affecting in every way and emotionally gratifying. The magnitude of that all was stunning. When I auditioned her she was doing two songs in her mother's act. She had a voice, an innocence, a power and a beauty that was so stunning. I say in the film, "Whitney, do you realize how unusual this is? You're starting out and we're selling seven consecutive Number Ones and 22 million copies of the first album. Are you pinching yourself?" It was me who was pinching myself as well. It's all been obscured by the tabloids though, by the accounts of her that concentrate on the lethal impact of drugs, which was tragic and which cut her life short. But for it to obscure who she was and everything about her is terribly unfair. When I read in the papers of the tragic premature death of Chris Cornell, or anybody whose life is cut short by the lethal impact of drugs, you feel the tragedy. But you also see the affect that these people have on their family, on other musicians. You do a tremendous disservice not only to the person but to history to obscure what made them great. And in this case, Whitney is the greatest contemporary singer of all time.

So you feel that people remember her only for her drug problems?
Certain people are trying to recreate her life and concentrate on the sordid, tawdry nature of her life as being affected by drugs. It really does a disservice. And I think in this film you see that Whitney was much more than that. You really see everything. Yes, you see her at the [2001] Michael Jackson tribute concert at Madison Square, and they show the letter I wrote to her where I said she looked "like a skeleton." Obviously that was horrifying. But you also see her through different stages of her career when she soared like no other artist has ever really soared. You see that overwhelming impact from the early seven consecutive Number One hits to her doing "The Star-Spangled Banner" to "I Will Always Love You."

Obviously the music business has changed a great deal in the past decade or so with declining sales and the advent of streaming. What does the future of the industry look like to you? 
We've been through a tremendous challenge over the last few years with the digital revolution. And when it came it threatened the health of the music business because the public was getting used to the idea that maybe music should be free. It really threatened the health of record labels, artists, musicians, creative people. A number of people were questioning the career choice of going into music. Will music be healthy? It's clear now that with streaming, that with the protection that we're getting for the creators, that yes, music is healthy and it will be healthy for, I think, forever.

What's next for you?
Right now I'm very involved in working to really prove a point: In the current state of music, and with the health restored in the industry, we have to address not only where the next Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen is coming from but also where is the next Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston coming from. We must make sure the great voices continue to be heard as the hip-hop revolution and the popularity of EDM takes place. It can't take place in such a dominating way that it obscures the great new voices.