Although he was trained as a lawyer and embarked upon a successful career in law, Clive Davis stumbled into the music business. In his book “The Soundtrack Of My Life,” Davis takes us through the ups and downs of his career as a music executive. Overall the impression is he very much enjoyed his career and that he was almost like a kid in a candy store.
You’re fired. By far the most riveting chapter of the book is when Davis recounts the scandal in 1973 that got him into serious legal trouble and fired from his post as president of Columbia Records. He attributes his troubles to guilt by association and delegating authority to someone who proved untrustworthy. Davis was dismissed for allegedly misusing his expense account and defrauding CBS, the parent company of Columbia Records. But the scandal grew much deeper and came to implicate the entire music industry. As Davis writes, “The ‘New York Times’ could run a news story with the following sentence: ‘The (music) business has been shaken by a scandal involving organized crime, payola and drugs following the dismissal of Clive J. Davis as president of Columbia Records.'” Davis says the scandal grew to such proportions that lawyers for CBS advised the conglomerate to “establish as much distance as it could from its record division.” He describes CBS’s treatment of him as “cruelty and unfairness.” Although he was eventually exonerated of all but one minor charge that led to paying a small fine and spending one day on probation, Davis still needed to get his good name back. After all, the scandal was the first time many people outside the music business had ever heard the name Clive Davis. This sad chapter in his life turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it led to him starting his own record label, Arista Records.
Arista Records. Davis was able to land on his feet because of the contacts he had in the music business. Columbia Pictures (no relation to Columbia Records) invited Davis to become a consultant and later to run their record division. Bell Records, one of the Columbia Pictures labels, was struggling but had under contract hit-makers like Tony Orlando and Dawn, and the Fifth Dimension. Davis reorganized Bell Records and other labels that were under the Columbia Pictures umbrella, and renamed the labels Arista, meaning “excellence.”
Barry Manilow, Arista’s first big star. Barry Manilow was one of the few artists Davis retained from the Bell Records label. Davis describes how resistant Maniliow was to recording outside material, that is, material he himself did not write. Davis often had to talk him into recording those songs, and for Manilow’s albums, Davis would select two songs for him that were written by someone else. Most of Manilow’s biggest hits were written by other people, including number one songs “Mandy,” and “I Write the Songs.” Manilow helped put Arista on the map during the 1970s as its first superstar.
Whitney Houston. Of his chapter about the late Whitney Houston, the biggest star ever at Arista, Davis laments, “Without question this is the most difficult chapter for me to write.” Whitney had seven straight number one songs on the “Billboard” singles chart, eclipsing the record held by the Beatles and the Bee Gees. Her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl in 1991, during the height of the Persian Gulf War, generated such a positive response of pride and patriotism that the song was released as a single. “I Will Always Love You,” from the soundtrack to her movie “The Bodyguard,” was number one for 14 weeks, at the time a record. Whitney and Clive Davis were a cohesive team taking Arista to unprecedented heights. But then there was the downside. Davis explains how some in the African American community thought Whitney was a sellout for singing “white-oriented” material, so much so that she was known as “Whitey” Houston and was booed when she attended some black award shows. And then there were the drugs. Davis states that Whitney denied his request to enter drug rehab and was in complete denial. “I was depressed and frustrated,” Davis writes, “but at least for a moment, I felt that I was out of options. I knew that if an addict does not want to get help, there ultimately is very little that anyone else can do.” And the domestic squabbles. Davis says he doesn’t blame Whitney’s husband Bobby Brown for her troubles, but that “the two of them brought out the worst in each other.” And the smoking. Davis writes that Whitney’s smoking was ruining her voice, but he had trouble convincing her to halt the destructive habit.
Star power at Columbia Records. Before forming Arista Records, Davis was a lawyer for CBS and Columbia Records and later president of that record label. As a lawyer, he had a confrontation with Bob Dylan over the lyrics to one of Dylan’s songs possibly leaving Columbia open to a slander suit. As president of the record label, Davis deemphasized the Mitch Miller type of middle-of-the-road music in favor of rock. “We were very thin in the music of tomorrow,” Davis explains. He attended the Monterey Pop Festival and signed Big Brother and the Holding Company, a band that featured Janis Joplin. He relates the story of how the wild-child Joplin once offered to “ball him” as a way of cementing a deal. He politely declined. He signed Donovan to Epic Records, Columbia’s sister label. He phased out monaural in favor of stereo and introduced variable pricing for albums. Other acts Davis either discovered or developed while at Columbia Records read like a who’s who in the music business. They included Simon and Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Billy Joel, Chicago and Aerosmith.
Megastars and reclamation projects at Arista. In addition to Manilow and Houston, other successful acts at Arista included Air Supply, Kenny G, Patti Smith and the Grateful Dead. Under Davis’s leadership, Arista also bolstered the sagging careers of Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, the Kinks and Carly Simon. “Reviving legendary careers and extending career longevity mean the world to me,” Davis says.
The Milli Vanilli misstep. A duo from Germany, Milli Vanilli had five top 5 hits, including three number one songs, in a span of less than a year. The only problem was that Rob and Fab weren’t singing on any of the hits yet their producer, Frank Farian, presented them as if they were the singers. Arista distributed Milli Vanilli music in America, and Davis explains that he and his company had no knowledge of the ruse the duo and their producer put over on the public. The debacle caused Arista a great deal of embarrassment. Milli Vanilli even won a Grammy for Best New Artist, but the award was rescinded when their deceit was uncovered.
Footprint in R&B. While at Columbia Records, Davis agreed to promote and distribute records from Philadelphia International, a soul label started by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. At Arista he signed a joint venture with LaFace Records, the label of Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenny “Baby Face” Edmonds. This allowed Davis’s companies to stay on the cutting edge of R&B and soul music. He applied the same successful formula to hip hop when he signed a deal with Sean “Puffy” Combs to back his Bad Boy label.
Forced out at Arista and formed J Records. Davis was 67 years old when he learned that Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG), the parent company of Arista Records, wanted him to retire because he had reached the conglomerate’s mandatory retirement age of 60. He was enjoying the great success of Santana’s “Supernatural” album at the time and was confused as to why BMG planned to drop him when he had already reached aged 60 years ago. When the public learned of Davis’s forced retirement, a backlash against BMG ensued. BMG then compromised and allowed Davis to form his own company under the BMG umbrella, and Davis named the company J Records, taking the name from his middle name, Jay. The biggest star he discovered for J Records was Alicia Keys. Ironically, due to mergers and Davis being promoted to head the RCA Music Group, he eventually came to direct the Arista label once again. Later he oversaw the Columbia and Epic labels again, among other labels, in the merger-friendly era after the turn of the century.
Many honors. In 2000 Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the nonperformer category, and he received the Trustees’ Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2000 Grammy Awards ceremony. In 1997, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he has earned numerous other awards and honors.
Bisexuality and music in digital age. In the last chapter of the book, Davis describes his five decades in the music business as “totally exhilarating.” In this chapter he also describes his close relationship to his three sons and one daughter, the collapse of his second marriage (he had described his first divorce in an earlier chapter), and his slowly coming to understand his bisexuality. After his second divorce, he started having personal relationships with men as well as women. Going back to music, he speculates about the future of the music industry in the digital age, where there are far fewer record labels and “consumers, particularly young consumers, came to believe that all music should be free.” Davis had a very successful and lucrative career in the music business and the book “The Soundtrack of My Life” takes us through that magical journey.
“The Soundtrack of My Life,” Clive Davis with Anthony DeCurtis, Simon and Schuster, 2012
“The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 5th Edition,” Fred Bronson, Billboard Books, 2003
“The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 9th Edition,” Joel Whitburn, Billboard Books, 2010