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Clive Davis: The Last Record Man

He signed Janis, Whitney, Alicia — and he’s still looking for that next hit

Clive Davis

Clive Davis, circa 1960.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Every Wednesday afternoon, for the past 40 years, Clive Davis has met with his scouts, accountants, marketers, producers and promoters to examine the status of each new record on his label. When the news is good, the people around the table — in the boardroom of his company, J Rec­ords — cheer. “It can be hard for members of the rock press like yourself,” he tells me before the meeting. “All these people cheering for pop music, which, maybe, you don’t take so seriously. But, you know, not everything has to be Dark Side of the Moon.”

Buried in this complaint is Clive’s philosophy: Whereas for a critic, a song should be a hit because it’s beautiful, for Clive, among the greatest hitmakers of his era, the song is beautiful because it’s a hit. There are no crappy records in the Top Ten — every hit is to be studied and admired. It does not matter if it’s by Car­los Santana or Rod Stewart or Barry Manilow — every hit is akin to every other hit. So when the A&R man says Hurricane Chris is Number Three and rising, you cheer, even if you are a 75-year-old man who’s been through this cycle — production, release, response — an infinite number of times.

Davis is the music industry’s great survivor, the man who keeps coming back, who was old and is now young, who started with Janis Joplin, continued with Whitney Houston and now records Alicia Keys. He began in black and white, went psychedelic, went punk, and is ending like a long summer’s day — in a riot of color. In the last few years, he’s had a string of accomplishments that rival the late-career achievements of, say, Barry Bonds — scoring hits with Carrie Underwood, Baby Bash, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, Fantasia and Eddie Vedder. He’s also been involved in the success of American Idol, serving as a guest judge, then recording the winners. “He’s the ultimate long-term player,” says Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen’s manager. “He was a label head in the 1960s. He was on top then, and now, 40 years later, is still on top — that’s remarkable. I do not think you’ll see that happen again.” This spring, Clive will try to add to his stats with new releases by Jennifer Hud­son, who, voted off an earlier round of American Idol, won an Academy Award for her performance in Dreamgirls, and British pop singer Leona Lewis, winner of another TV talent show, The X Factor. J Records — the label he founded in 2000 — —has basically run the table at this year’s Grammys, with a dozen nominations for artists including Eddie Vedder, Carrie Underwood and Fantasia. Clive is now at work on a new album by Whitney Houston — her first release in six years. Looking at Clive, you cannot help but wonder: Why does he continue? What keeps him going?

There’s something I want you to hear,” says Clive, handing a CD to the man DJ’ing the meeting late last summer. “It’s from a record we’re doing with Aretha — duets.”

Clive is at the head of a table, paterfamilias presiding over the brood. He’s not handsome, not not. He’s better looking now than he was in the 1970s, when his head was framed by a fringe of curly hair. He’s one of those men who get better with age, whose features have come to seem dignified.

“We’re getting Christina to do a song with Aretha,” he says of Christina Aguilera, the pairing of a young hitmaker with a musical deity being a Davis specialty. (See Santana with Rob Thomas on “Smooth,” from the album Supernatural that sold 15 million copies.) “We want to get the record into Star­bucks for Christmas.” He’s wearing a black suit with a black shirt and a black-and-yellow tie. He’s wearing tinted aviator glasses, and you can see his eyes, darting this way and that.

The music comes on: Aretha, then cool, bouncy Frank Sinatra, dead all these years but still singing, answering each phrase, hitting the consonants, letting the vowels run on. Clive grins, his head swinging like a metronome. The music is cranked.

He plays two more cuts — Aretha and Luther Vandross on a song called “Doctor’s Orders,” in which Vandross sings of getting a prescription filled at a “love pharmacy.” (Clive listens with head cocked, then says, “The mix is off. We’re losing licks at the end.”) Then Aretha and John Legend on a tune meant to go Top 40. When the song is over, a young man says, “That is bumping!”

A discussion follows: Can the record cross over? If so, how can this be made to happen? This illustrates one of Clive’s unambiguously great qualities: his dedication to the artists of the past, who have seemingly had their run and moved on to the senior circuit. Time and again, Davis has been able to blow on the embers, to spark a dying fire back to flame. He did it with Santana. He did it with Barry Manilow, who in 2006 had a comeback album with The Great­est Songs of the Fifties (Clive’s idea). He did it with Rod Stewart, who in 2000 had a huge hit with It Had to Be You … The Great American Songbook, a collection of standards (Rod’s idea). Stewart came to Clive when this project was shot down by his regular producers. “We saw it as a small thing,” Stewart says. “But Clive jumped on it. He said, ‘Get rid of the drum, get rid of the guitar and make it about voice.'”

“When Rod brought it to me, I thought it was a tragically bad idea,” says Arnold Stiefel, who has managed Stewart for over 20 years. “I said, ‘That’s a good way to wind up as a lounge singer in Las Vegas.’ Later, after it had been turned down by Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker [the former Warner Bros, patriarchs who then ran DreamWorks Re­cords], I brought it to Clive. He said, ‘I love this concept. I don’t like the way it’s structured.’ When it was finished, you might think, ‘Great, it’s this nice little niche thing, it will sell 150,000 albums.’ Not Clive. He treated it like it was a new Beatles record. It sold five million.”

Stiefel then explains Clive’s plan for Stewart’s follow-up. “So, after the rec­ord hit, I go to Clive and say, ‘What do we do next?’ And he gives me this look. ‘When Volume One sells five million copies,’ he says, ‘your next record is called Volume Two.’ “

And here was Clive, doing it again, or trying to, for Aretha, who has not been a Top 40 staple in ages. The people around the table believe her best shot is a duet with Aguilera, which has not yet been cut. Grab onto Aguilera, and ride her to heaven.

“We wait for Christina,” says Clive, “we miss Christmas.

“We lose Starbucks.”

The people at the table, including Charles Goldstuck, the company’s chief operating officer, tell Clive that, in this case, Christina Aguilera is more important than Christmas, which annoys Clive. He raises a hand — everyone gets quiet. He has a story, which he tells in a whisper, causing everyone to lean in. Back in the 1980s, Davis paid Andy Warhol to paint a cover for an Aretha Franklin album. He then decided to buy the original. He called Warhol and asked for a price. Warhol said, “Good question, I will get back to you.” Warhol came back with a price. Something like $100,000. Davis asked if the money he had already paid Warhol for the cover could be subtracted from this price. Warhol said, “Good question, I will get back to you.”

Clive pauses, looks around, then says, “Then Andy Warhol died.”

The room is quiet; everyone laughs.

“Can you imagine what that painting is worth now?” someone says.

Of course, there is a lesson: Don’t be greedy. You have Aretha and John Leg­end; you have Aretha and Sinatra.

What are you waiting for?

Who knows what might happen while you’re waiting?

When the people at the table see that Clive has made up his mind, they not only stop talking but say he is correct.

A microphone is passed around, each marketer reading numbers, breakdowns, trends. It sounds like air-traffic control: We’ve got a six with a bullet, 790 number six five. Six, five, two, 15, 26. The mike makes its way to the A&R man who’s working with Hurricane Chris, a rapper whose song “A Bay Bay” is a summer hit. But its success is not straightforward, and, in this, it’s indicative of a moment of turmoil in the industry, where ever more music is produced and consumed but ever less is paid for.

There has been a tectonic shift in the business, driven mostly by the Internet. In this new landscape, people expect to get music free, like songs on the radio — a sentiment men like Clive Davis have fought with lawsuit and legislation. You get rich in this economy by finding a way to charge for what has always been free. Water. TV. Radio. But the music industry has been moving in the opposite direction, with consumers expecting to get for free what they had always purchased. It’s as if pop music is a national resource, like oil, in the process of being nationalized. While the product of the industry has more consumers than ever — music is everywhere in a way that would have been inconceivable to our great-grandparents — there are fewer and fewer people willing to pay for it. Whereas a hit like “A Bay Bay” would, in the past, have driven album sales over a million copies, the record has actually sold only 103,000. As a result, the record labels have been forced to look for new ways to bring in revenue. In the end, for an artist like Hurricane Chris, a large percentage of revenue will come from ringtones — people paying two dollars to download the hook to use on their phone. “We will end this year with close to 40 percent of our business being Internet,” says Goldstuck. “Within the next year, I imagine it will be 50-50. The overall consumption of music is at an all-time high — it’s bigger than it’s ever been. It’s just a question of getting people to pay for it.”

“As for Clive,” he says, “if you look back to the beginning, when he was president of CBS, then to now, his fundamental approach does not change: It’s always been about finding the right artist. Can this artist be a star? If so, does he or she have the right repertoire? If not, can we find the right repertoire? This was and is the first requirement. Genres have changed. Technology has changed. But the way Clive goes about the creative side of his job has not changed.”

“OK,” says Clive, looking around the table. “When do we get the new song from Hurricane Chris?”

In a sense, the business has returned to the early years of rock & roll, in that the common currency is again the single. The hit song is more important than ever — without it, you can’t move the product. This was the core of Clive’s much-publicized argument with Kelly Clarkson, who, after winning the first season of American Idol in 2002, recorded two albums for Clive, Thankful and Breakaway, which sold more than a couple million each. She wanted to follow with a record of her own material. Clive says this is a desire shared by almost every artist; no one thinks they’re taken seriously until they write — to which Clive replies, “Billie Holiday, Lena Home, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra — are these people taken seriously?” Clive listened to the record, then gently told Clarkson he did not like it. Because he did not hear any hits. “When someone wants to write, I always say the same thing,” Clive says. “Can you write better than the best songs being written? If you can, do it. If not, don’t. It’s like an actor who has substantial success deciding to direct or produce themselves in a piece of junk and not do the plum parts, which was the criteria when their career began.”

Clarkson lashed out at Clive. She was quoted saying to Clive, “I get [that] you don’t like the album. You’re 80; you’re not supposed to like my album.” (Clive is, in fact, 75.) The album My December lacked a radio-friendly single. Clarkson canceled her tour because of poor ticket sales, fired her manager, issued a statement: “Contrary to recent characterizations in the press, I’m well aware that Clive is one of the great rec­ord men of all time. He has been a key adviser and has been an important force in my success to date.” When this comes up in the meeting, Clive shrugs and, in essence, says, It’s not important if I was right. The record had no hits — that’s what mattered. Whoever said what I said would have been right.

Now and then, in the course of the meeting, Clive lets his eyes wander around the table, as if he’s searching for someone, anyone, who might deliver something exciting. At one point, he turns and looks at a man seated directly behind him, as if it is precisely this man’s intention to not be seen by Clive. This is the producer who has been working with Hurricane Chris. “Well, when do we get the new song?” asks Clive.

“He’s got it with him,” someone says.

The man puts the song in the player.

“The Hand Clap.” It is sharp and dirty and captures what it feels like to be in a club, when you are young and surrounded by bodies and the night does not end. The people around the table — and these are the people who decide what you listen to — sway. There is nothing sadder than a room full of music men grooving to a rap song. Clive closes his eyes and drifts on the beat. What does Clive hear? Is it the music, or is it what he can do with the music? Does Clive love a tune as a 15-year-old loves a tune, or is the love of the record man different?

Clive grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s, before Brooklyn was cool, when the borough was still Manhattan’s coat closet. The Brooklyn of red-brick factories and teeming streets and stoops and alleys and club jackets and Italians and Poles and Swedes and Jews jammed together, like men in an elevator.

Clive’s parents died within 11 months of each other — his mother of a cerebral hemorrhage, his father of a heart attack. He was a freshman at NYU, living at home. Just like that, his childhood was over. From that moment on, there would be no one to pay for Clive. He would have to make it on wits. He went to NYU on scholarship; another scholarship put him through Harvard Law. He says this experience explains his quest for hits. “If I didn’t keep up at least a B+, I would lose those scholarships,” he says. “I’m always mindful of performance. This comes from Brooklyn. I see producers become dated, go over the hill, lose that edge, because they keep doing the same thing, wondering, when it goes out of style, why they’re not making it. I just knew ever since school what it takes to be competitive. There are a lot of knives out there, and you’ve got a public report card with SoundScan that’s analyzed by the media.”

After college, Clive did just what a young lawyer coming out of school in the late Fifties was supposed to do: took a job with the best big firm that would have him. Rosenman, Colin, Kaye, Petschek and Freund, a prestigious Jewish outfit. Clive was buried in an annex, poring over contracts for Columbia Artists Management, a talent agency with no connection to the music company. Meanwhile, a lawyer for the firm, Harvey Schein, was hired by CBS and charged with setting up its international division. “[Schein] came to the firm and said, ‘Who’s doing contracts?’ And it was me. He said, ‘Look, I will promise if you come and work for me for a year, you’ll be head lawyer.’ I was making $11,ooo, and he offered me 25. I was married with a child.”

Once Clive reached CBS, he began to climb. That’s his nature. He was soon made head lawyer of the music division, where, crucially, he represented the company in a suit brought by the Federal Trade Commission. In the course of this work, he went everywhere and met everyone, an experience that showed him how the business is wired, how the studios connect to the factories, which connect to the distributors, which connect to the outlets. “It was a monopoly case against the Columbia Records Club,” he says. “Because of it, I started to know not just the contractual side but the retail and distribution side.” Most importantly, the case brought him to the attention of Goddard Lieberson, the president of Columbia Records. Clive latched on to Lieberson. “Another lucky break,” he says. “Goddard Lieberson said to me, ‘You’ve got ears.'”

Lieberson told Clive he was leaving the music division and moving upstairs. He wanted Clive to take on more responsibility. Would Clive like to be a division head? Would he like to be head of musical instruments, which oversaw the company that made Fender guitars? More money, bigger title, but it would mean a move to the West Coast. “By that time, I had two children,” Clive says. “I said, ‘Let me think it over.’ I came to the office the next day prepared to say, ‘I’m flattered, but I can’t move.’ Goddard called me in. He said, ‘Last night [my| executive president told me he wants to move to San Diego, so he will head the musical-instrument group. I’m making you head of Columbia Records.’ “

So just like that, Clive Davis, the 35-year-old orphaned Harvard lawyer with no experience in the business, was the president of one of the biggest record labels in the world. “It’s amusing,” says Clive, “because it was luck.”

This was the key moment — the moment the train switched from freight line to passenger line, from business to creative, from a future of big money and second homes and meetings wherein men discuss the advisability of arbitration, then send for Chinese, to a future of big money and second homes and conferences wherein members of Big Broth­er and the Holding Company strip nude and Janis Joplin offers to seal the deal with a quick screw. In one sense, the moves Clive made to get here, which, of course, is the heaven we all dream of, having fun and being fabulous and still getting crazy rich, seem calculated and shrewd — he took risks and befriended mentors; in another sense it seems, even to him, like a series of happy accidents: because he worked on contracts, because he was involved with the lawsuit, because Lieberson liked him, because the other guy wanted to move to San Diego. Clive pulled a string, and the sweater unraveled, and, at the end of that, it was 1967, and he was the boy president of Columbia Records.

The label was known for classical music and Broadway cast albums. It did have a few modern stars, including Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and Simon and Garfunkel, but, for the most part, it had missed out on rock & roll. The label was being outperformed by its biggest rivals. Was Clive expected to change this? Probably not. For the most part, his job was bureaucratic, adding numbers, managing producers, keeping the product moving. What’s more, he inherited a staff that was basically disdainful of the youth market. Another person in Clive’s position might have been content to collect the check, fill the suit; and, in fact, if you believe Clive, this is what he was prepared to do. Until the epiphany.

Clive had been in San Francisco working out a deal with Lou Adler, who ran Ode Records and managed the Mamas and the Papas. Adler had just scored with the hit “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” He invit­ed Clive to the Monterey Pop Festival. Clive has a gift for music, but he’s not eloquent, so he has trouble explaining just what happened at Monterey:

“I was totally unprepared for the Haight-Ashbury population. The growth in its purest form of love and peace and flowers — it was a revolution. Big Brother and the Holding Company came down and Joplin was mesmerizing, like a white tornado. I had never seen anything like that, and so literally the cliche of feeling tingles go up and down your spine, and looking at the people, I said, ‘I have to do it.’ “

It was just like what happens when a writer finds his voice or a seeker sees the light. All at once, Clive knew what to do and how to do it. You might say he went to California in pinstripes and came back in tie-dye. Only Clive did not come back in tie-dye. When he came back, he was still in pinstripes but his soul was tie-dyed. Clive is sharp, Clive is sober, Clive is serious. Which is how, if you’re a rock star, you want your record man. (Just the opposite of another great record man of the era: Ahmet Ertegun, who founded Atlantic, was not sober, was not serious, was hip and flying but holding it together — these men represent the poles of the business.) In other words, Clive’s epiphany wasn’t chemical — it was guttural: He saw the play in Janis Joplin as he saw the play in Goddard Lieberson. “I realized I was on the cusp of something,” he says. “The festival was in ’67. I prepared to unveil the music in mid-’68 with a campaign that said this is the new revolutionary sound that will be heard around the world.”

“There was a contingency of people at the company who just did not want to go into rock & roll,” says Bruce Lundvall, now the CEO of Blue Note, who worked with Clive at Columbia. “Because they didn’t think it was good music. There was a big fight between the young people and the old people. But when Clive came in, rock & roll was a priority.”

Clive began clearing out old Columbia scouts and replacing them with his people, confederates who would become the next generation of record men. “I had an A&R staff that was successful in pop and classical and Broadway,” he says. “But if you grow up doing Tony Bennett and Jerry Vale and Andre Kostelanetz, you’re not going to get what’s going on in the rock world.” It was in these years that Clive made himself into a complete record man, a throwback to the days when A&R stood for Artist and Repertoire. He does not just sign an act but works with an act, suggesting, listening, criticizing, changing, annoying, even honing their live show. (Being Clive, and this is one of the big criticisms from people who have worked with him, he takes credit for everything. Here’s what an old record man tells me: “Notice when you talk to Clive how many of his sentences begin, ‘Then I. Then I… Then I…'”)

Clive: “I took over a theater in L.A. called the Ahmanson. It had a huge stage — bigger than Radio City. I put Anthony Newman with the chamber ensemble. I put Miles Davis on with Johnny Mathis and Springsteen. Bruce gets on, I’m sitting in the audience. He’s singing ‘Spirit in the Night,’ standing on this big fucking stage, and not moving. I go up and say, ‘Listen, it’s one thing when you’re in Max’s Kansas City or in a small club where there’s no room. But, Bruce — when you get on a stage like this, you’ve got to move!’ I said, ‘Go to this side of the stage, go to the other side. Make use of the stage!’ Segue to 1975. Bruce calls me and says, ‘I’m playing at the Bottom Line. You’ve gotta come.’ I go with Lou Reed, who’s never even heard of Bruce at this time. The show begins. I can’t even recog­nize Bruce. He’s a dervish, jumping over tables, going all over the room. I go backstage, and before I say anything, Bruce says, ‘Did I move enough for you?’ “

Rod Stewart: “With the four Ameri­can Songbooks, Clive was involved to the extent of being too involved. He would take these songs and change keys and not even bother about whether I could sing in that key or not.”

Clive listens to dozens of new tunes each week, looking to match just the right song with just the right performer. Years ago, he had to convince Barry Manilow to record a tune called “Brandy,” which, renamed “Mandy,” became the hit that made his career possible. After that, Clive and Manilow had a deal whereby Clive got to choose two songs for each new Manilow record — choices that came to include many of the monsters: “Looks Like We Made It,” “I Write the Songs,” “Weekend in New England.”

After Monterey, Clive built Columbia into perhaps the greatest rock label in the world, signing, among others, Big Brother and the Holding Company; Laura Nyro; Carlos Santana; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Chicago; Johnny Winter; Bruce Springsteen; Billy Joel; Herbie Hancock; Earth, Wind and Fire; Pink Floyd; and Neil Diamond. For most executives, this run, all by itself, would mean a place in the Hall of Fame. For Clive, it ended not in a coronation but in a scandal — a pub­lic humiliation that would have been the end of most careers.

One afternoon, at the end of the summer, I drive up to Pound Ridge, New York, where, several years ago, Clive bought a second home. It’s a straight shot from New York City. On Interstate 684, not far from Clive’s exit, a sign designates the stretch as Clive Davis’ adopted highway.

The house sits on a hill at the end of a secluded road. It’s huge. Clive saw it advertised in the paper. Bought it. He built a guesthouse as big as the Old Executive Office Building. A servant meets me at the door and leads me to the living room, which is like a room in a museum, with lots of art and windows that look out on decks overhung by long white banners. Clive is alone in his mansion, except for me and the servants. He has four children from two marriages, both of which ended in divorce years ago. All four children, like Clive, are lawyers: Fred, 48; Lauren, 46, who is a professor at NYU; Mitchell, 37, who is a concert promoter; and Douglas, 35.

Clive is preceded into the room by his dog, Teddy, a beagle who slides under my hand and wags his tail. Then Clive comes in wearing a shirt and slacks, pulled high. For the most part, his conversation is rambling and discursive, organized like a dream. He talks about Janis Joplin and Frank Sinatra and Kelly Clarkson and Brooklyn, but again and again he hints at the scandal that nearly ended his career. As if everything in the early years leads to the scandal and everything in the later years leads away. When I ask about it, Clive sits up, as if he has been waiting, as if something in him clicks and he says to himself, ‘Here we go.’ He speaks as if it just happened, as if he has been through it a hundred times, making his case to his friends, to enemies, to himself in bed when he is trying to sleep.

In 1973, the United States Attorney in Newark, Jonathan Goldstein, was pursuing a mob case, in the course of which a man who worked for Columbia Records was pulled in, a common fixer. He scored tickets, landed reservations at restaurants, etc. He was also mixed up with the mob. According to Davis, he forged Clive’s signature, faked invoices, elicited kickbacks. He had been caught and fired before the Feds ever got hold of him. He looked to cut a deal as soon as he was arrested, offering to make a case against Clive, who, the fixer said, had billed the company for personal items, including a trip to Jamaica, a house in Beverly Hills and his son’s bar mitzvah (at the Plaza!). He accused Clive of payola, the original sin of the music business. When word reached CBS, the corporate boss, a man named Arthur Taylor, decided to dump Clive without really investigating.

Clive, who had been on top of the world the day before, was forced to make the ultimate walk of shame, escorted through the halls like a criminal.

“Your life can be upended,” he says. “There was this guy who worked for the company before I was there, and he was stealing. I fired him. He forged my name on two matters, a bar mitzvah I had for my son, where I paid the bill but didn’t know the bill was larger and he got a kickback. We had it investigated. It was nothing I was threatened by until he told the prosecutor he knew intimately there was payola at Columbia and he was gonna cooperate to get leniency.”

“It was a lousy time,” Bruce Lundvall says. “They assigned criminal lawyers to all of us. They thought we were all guilty of something.”

The story was in the papers. Clive and payola, fraud and the mob. It was devastating for the overachiever who had never gotten anything but A’s. Shame of the lowlife variety. “It was a period to endure,” he says, but nothing compared to what he had already experienced in life. “I had been toughened by my parents dying when I was 17, 18, by going through school as an orphan and having to earn everything. You get certain comfort growing up on the streets of Brooklyn, by overcoming whatever prejudices [there were] at that time.”

Yet here is Clive, more than 30 years later, talking not about the death of his parents but about the scandal. And not just because I ask — because he knows it’s part of his story just as Joplin is part of his story. The scandal is the key event of his professional life. It’s the trauma that explains everything. What keeps Clive going? Memory. He is trying to put so much distance between himself and the bad thing so that no one will remember. As a result, Clive Davis has buried CBS and all those who doubted him under a tower of hits. The scandal, though it still torments him, was the great lucky accident of his career— — it drives him, on and on, forever away from the shame.

In the end, the case itself did not amount to much. There were no payola charges. Even the bar mitzvah thing was dropped. Eventually, Clive pleaded guilty to one count of tax evasion and was forced to pay a $10,000 fine. But even now, if you talk to someone in the business about Clive, the scandal comes up, or tends to, always shortened to one sentence: CBS fired Clive because Clive charged his son’s bar mitzvah (at the Plaza!) to the company. “The idea that there was wrongdoing is unfair,” says Clive. “I never did charge my son’s bar mitzvah — it was phony, the guy went to jail, and I was exculpated!”

In 1974, Clive took a job as president of the music division of Columbia Pictures (no relation to Columbia Records). In addition to salary, he was given a 20 percent stake in the company. He changed its name to Arista, the honor society for the overachievers of New York City’s public schools, of which he was a perennial member. As if he was reminding himself who he was and where he came from. When the case against him fell apart, he threat­ened to sue CBS, which responded by giving Arista a mail-order deal worth one million dollars. In 1979, Columbia Pictures sold Arista to BMG, the German behemoth, which, because of Clive’s 20 percent stake, made him a truly rich man for the first time. Clive stayed on to run the label, building it into a power. Over time, he signed, among others, the Grateful Dead, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Dionne Warwick, Sarah McLachlan, Annie Lennox, Sean Combs, Toni Braxton and Air Supply.

One night, in 1983, Clive went into Sweetwater’s, a club in Manhattan, where Dionne Warwick was performing with her cousin, Whitney Houston. Houston was being pursued by other labels, but took less money to work with Clive. In Whitney, Clive found the ideal template. He built her into the perfect diva, choosing her songs, producing her records, managing her image. Houston became one of the biggest female recording artists in history, selling more than 50 million records. Clive is currently at work on her long-awaited comeback album. “Clive can do all this because Clive stays relevant,” Carlos Santana says. “Clive stays relevant because Clive is open. Clive is invested in the holy moment. If I were to draw a picture of Clive, it would be as a little child with a big heart and big ears.” All this might give you the sense that Clive is only about music, that he is, as Carlos Santana describes him, a little child with satellite ears, scanning the heavens for hits, but in fact Clive is a master of business and a wizard of numbers, a man who tracks the ups and downs of each single. At any moment, he can tell you the top 20 songs on the charts, which songs these songs displaced, which songs those songs displaced, and so on, back and back. “Most executives are either creative or business types,” John Sykes, president of network development at MTV, says. “Clive is rare in that he is both — left brain, right brain. He can pick a hit and the next minute tell you the exact number of sales. He’s the only guy who can do that.”

“Clive is a Harvard-educated lawyer,” says Allen Grubman, who, as an attor­ney, has represented just about every big name in the business, including Clive. “Which means he was trained as a businessman. It’s not his passion, he would rather be doing something else, but when it comes time to sit and do numbers, no one is better at it than Clive.”

I go by Clive’s office in Manhattan. This is Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the Jewish year. He seems embarrassed to be working. He holds out a hand as if checking for rain, then says, “Well, He hasn’t struck me down yet.” He shows me around his office — the walls are lined with pictures of Clive and his art­ists, several taken at the party he hosts in Beverly Hills each year the night before the Grammys.To many, this party — which is filled with industry heavies, which is wall-to-wall celebrities, which is legends and newcomers, which features the sort of performances you might make up in your head but never expect to see: “Lou Reed with Rod Stewart,” says Clive, “Alicia Keys with Aretha Franklin, Fantasia with Chaka Khan” — is a greater happening than even the Grammys themselves, the musical event of the year. In some way, the party symbolizes his place in the business, his status, how far he has come.

Clive drops into a chair behind his desk. Huge speakers are mounted on the ceiling. From my vantage, they seem to hang on either side of his head like quotation marks, saying, “Hey, listen to me, but take none of it too seriously.”

As Clive talks, traffic flows behind him on Fifth Avenue. Time passing. To an old man, everything is a clock. He lives a few blocks away, in a penthouse on Park Avenue. He flashes a bunch of CDs and smiles, like a man showing his hand. He founded J Records eight years ago, when he was forced out of Arista by the corporate bosses of BMG. It was company policy: Executives retire at 60. “Ini­tially, everyone was shocked,” says Richard Palmese, an executive vice president at RCA. “The company was doing so well and breaking so many artists. Then, out of left field, Strauss Zelnick [the head of BMG] wants to push out Clive for this silly bureau­cratic thing about retirement age.” They offered to put Clive above all the music divisions. He refused. It looks like a promotion but it’s a title minus a job. For Clive, the thrill is the chance discovery: finding the next big thing, building a career, watching it unfold. When word of his situation leaked, several artists threatened to walk. People in the industry attacked BMG. In the end, executives at BMG came to Clive and said something like: What can we do to make this go away?

Clive issued demands. He wanted his own label. Funded by BMG, but he would own 50 percent. He wanted a budget of $150 million. Clive was allowed to take ten artists from Arista: five established artists (except Houston and Santana) and five acts who had not released any music yet. That’s how Arista became J Records. It was as if BMG transferred their company to Clive. He was approached by the creators of American Idol soon after. To make the show legitimate, they needed the backing of a record company. Clive signed on. Within a few years, he was releasing debut records by contestants already known to the show’s audience of 30 million: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia. In 2002, BMG bought Clive’s stake in J Records for an estimated $20 million. In other words, Clive sold Arista to BMG, BMG gave it back, then Clive sold it to them again! If this was lucky, it’s the kind of lucky Clive has always been.

“I got hooked up with Clive through friends,” Alicia Keys says. “He was the first record executive to ever ask what I wanted for myself. So many people in this business are not even musical. They’re businessmen, lawyers, investors. They don’t like music. Clive is one of the last great music lovers in a position to actually affect what happens.”

Clive plays me several songs, commenting on each: a band from Canada; a singer he calls “the next Billy Joel”; a discovery he compares to Patti Smith. He plays a demo of a song R. Kelly wrote for Whitney Houston. It’s R. Kelly singing, a melancholy, high-pitched appeal. “Whitney is the greatest interpreter of lyrics since Sinatra,” Clive says. “So you can imagine what she’ll do with this.” He holds up a copy of the new Bruce Springsteen CD, Magic. “I’m not in business with Bruce anymore,” he says, “but I have a special feeling for him. I’m interested in everything he does.” It’s this quality artists love in Clive. He actually seems to enjoy his musicians. It reminds me of a story Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen’s manager, told me. “In the Nineties, Bruce was being attacked for having lost his way,” said Landau. “So I turn on some talk show, and Clive is on. The host starts saying, ‘What’s up with Bruce? He’s lost his way.’ Clive says, ‘Who told you that? Because whoever did, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I just saw Bruce at the Garden, and he’s better than he’s ever been.’ I wanted to get up and kiss the TV.”

Clive puts on the first single from Springsteen’s record. He leans back, looks at the city. So many cars. So many people he will never know. OK, he is not in temple, but he is listening to a single, and to Clive the single has always been a kind of holy psalm. As Bruce himself said, “Get the ass moving, the soul will follow.” He is still there when I leave, the old man on a holy day, music cranked, either because he likes to rock or because he’s going deaf. It’s impossible to tell. 

In This Article: Clive Davis, Coverwall


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