Clive Davis Interview: ‘Failed’ Whitney Houston Docs, Aretha Franklin – Rolling Stone
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The Last Word: Clive Davis on ‘Failed’ Whitney Docs and Dinners With Aretha

The legendary producer also reflects on coming out as bisexual and why he passed on signing John Mellencamp

Clive Davis opens up about his friendship with Aretha Franklin and coming out as bisexual in Rolling Stone's Last Word interview.

Illustration by Mark Summer for Rolling Stone

This past June, Clive Davis was preparing to embark on his annual lengthy European vacation, but he first had to break some startling news: “We’re coming out with a new record of Whitney on Friday,” he said. During the sessions for her 1990 album I’m Your Baby Tonight, Houston had cut a remake of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” with producer Narada Michael Walden, but the track had been relegated to a Japanese edition of the album. Now, Davis was happy to announce that the long-buried remake had been revived by electronic DJ Kygo, who, Davis said, had done a “masterful job” of creating a brand-new backing track to support Houston’s three-decade–old vocal.

Formats and trends have come and gone (and, in cases like vinyl, have returned), but Davis remains an immovable part of the music business. As the head of Columbia, Arista, and J Records over the decades, Davis will forever be attached to the signing and cultivation of enough acts to fill any hall of fame, from Santana, Patti Smith, and Janis Joplin to Whitney Houston, Barry Manilow, and Alicia Keys; he also resurrected the careers of icons like the Grateful Dead and Aretha Franklin. In his current role as chief creative officer at Sony Music, the 87-year-od Davis is hardly retiring. On September 19, he’ll present a “Legend in Songwriting” Award to hip-hop producer Boi-1da and songwriter Diane Warren, and he’s executive producer of an upcoming edition of National Geographic’s scripted-drama series Genius that’s devoted to Franklin and scheduled for early next year. He’s also involved with an in-progress album of unreleased Houston recordings, and the documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives will premiere on Netflix on September 17th.

Although Davis has experienced his share of work troubles, from being fired from his job as the president of Columbia in 1973 to Houston’s death in 2012, he remains an unabashed fan of the music business. “I loved it all,” Davis says. “Getting into the record business and devoting my life to music has been incredibly fulfilling and satisfying in every conceivable way.” Not surprisingly, he is hardly a fan of fictionalized versions of his industry. “I don’t feel the accurate picture of the business has been told,” he says. “It’s been sensationalized and de-glamorized so often, the rough and the tumble side. I hated the series Vinyl. It showed the sensationalistic side without the flip side of music and the artists you get exposed to.”

Before he went on vacation, Davis also ruminated on a few of the many artists he worked with, the major surprise confession in his 2013 memoir, and the artists he wished he’d signed and those he wasn’t able to turn into stars.

Who are your heroes?
FDR. He overcame personal handicaps and adversity to become one of the great leaders of all time. I would also say Jackie Robinson. I was a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan growing up — I used to live six blocks from Ebbets Field. Not only was [Robinson] a great ballplayer, but he emerged as a role model to become the first black [major-league] ballplayer.

Of all the artists you worked with who are no longer with us, who do you miss the most?
Whitney. We had a very close relationship professionally from the time I found her in 1983. I would say the story of Whitney Houston has clearly not been told yet. She’s had two documentaries, and I think each of them failed to show the other side of Whitney, the side of her talent, her heart, why she was loved by so many. Her battle with drugs must be told, and how it prematurely caused her death. By no means whitewash it. But do not ignore the music and her natural talent, how she became the greatest singer of her generation. She had a vocal genius. She could transform a song and make it different.

Among the artists you’ve signed, whose records do you listen to the most?
The artist I probably play the most is Springsteen. And that includes the brand-new album — “There Goes My Miracle,” “Tucson Train.” I had nothing to do with it creatively. But I do love all of Springsteen. From being there at his signing to seeing him on Broadway, I’ve seen him over a lifetime.

Given all the legendary singers with whom you’ve worked, what do you think of AutoTune?
It’s a part of music and I really don’t have any thoughts on it. It’s viable and fun. I don’t look down on it.

When did you last speak with Aretha?
She and I became great friends. We would get together for dinner and talk about life. She never admitted she was terminally ill. We talked until a few weeks before she passed. She wanted every little detail of when I went to Saint-Tropez or St. Barts. She was always ready to overcome her fear of flying.

Which act do you regret not breaking?
You’re always somewhat regretful of any artist you thought would break. There was the Alpha Band years ago that had T Bone Burnett and a young violinist named David Mansfield. And there was the Funky Kings with Jack Tempchin, who has written so many great songs [the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Already Gone”].

Which artist do you most regret not signing?
I was at dinner in 2004 with Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, and Don Henley. I looked at Mellencamp and said, “It’s so ironic that you’re sitting next to Bruce, because I always picked you as the artist I most regretted not having signed. You were too close to Bruce at the time.” And he said, “You were right. My biggest influence at the time was Bruce, and there’s no question I was not ready to emerge as John Cougar to become the creative person I was. So I’m grateful to you.”

What was your most self-indulgent purchase?
I rented a yacht for a number of years. The first time was probably about 20 years ago, for two weeks to parts of Capri and the French Riviera. It was a wonderful thrill, but it cost between $150,000 and $200,000 a week. My hands were shaking as I was signing the contract because it was clearly an indulgence.

You’ve said all artists want commercial success.
For every artist, and understandably so, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, it’s not a dirty word to want your music heard by as many people as possible. They certainly recognize that you do have to move to the next step of marketing and promotion. I remember Janis Joplin calling me when her album came out about her record sales, and those days were the height of rejecting materialistic concessions and the commercial world. But they still want their creative output to be heard and by the largest number of people as possible. There’s no exception.

Is there one whose hunger for it surprised you?
Before we met, the Grateful Dead couldn’t understand why they would sell out arenas all over the world [and not sell as many records]. They were going to start their own record company and said, “We could sell our albums from consumer ice-cream trucks.” I remember going up to San Francisco and sitting in a conference room with them and telling them it how naïve it was and how they didn’t understand credit collection and promotion. One of the greatest pleasures of my life, with Arista barely two or three years old, was when they said, “You gave us such honest and direct and valuable advice a few years ago and we refused to listen, so we want to be with you and Arista.”

Did they ever try to dose you?
No. Never.

Your parents both died within a year of each other when you were a freshman in college. What did that instill in you?
I had $4,000 to get through college and law school. Because I had no money and had to go through on scholarships, I had to maintain a B-plus or A-minus average, and it really led to a work ethic I adopted. If I lost my scholarships to NYU or Harvard, I would have to, in effect, drop out. So there’s no question that maintaining a work ethic became very much a part of my life and career.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Because I loved to read, my mother always told me never to live in an ivory tower and that it’s vital to get out there and mix with people. She always would say, “You’re not gonna get common sense from books, you’re gonna get common sense from life and people.” And she was right.

You’re from Brooklyn. What’s the most Brooklyn thing about you?
I was at a law firm when I got the offer to become the general counsel for Columbia Records. I went to speak with [my bosses] about it and they said, “You know, you’re wearing khaki pants and a sports jacket. It’s a different atmosphere in the record business, so I don’t think that business is for you.” They advised me not to accept it. But I had grown up in Brooklyn, and I valued the melting pot that Brooklyn was. You felt as if you were exposed to life as it really is — the mixture of faces, people of every interest and persuasion. That led me to the decision.

You came out as bisexual in your memoir six years ago. How do you look back at that moment?
I don’t look upon it as the signal event in my life, but there was no way I was going to do an autobiography and not include the fact that only in middle age, after two failed marriages, would I look beyond gender for a relationship. I embraced bisexuality, which is the most misunderstood term in sexual identity. I never felt it was understood by much of the straight or gay community. You had to be either gay or straight — there was no in-between. I just opened myself up to the person rather than to the gender. I’ve read how, as some in the younger generation try to find their sexual identity, it doesn’t make any difference which gender it is until they locate the person. I relate to that.

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