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Clive Davis: A Life With A 'Soundtrack'

Clive Davis poses with Whitney Houston, then a rising star, shortly after Houston signed a contract with Arista Records in 1983.
Clive Davis poses with Whitney Houston, then a rising star, shortly after Houston signed a contract with Arista Records in 1983.

If Columbia Records hadn't signed Bruce Springsteen in the early 1970s, there's a chance The Boss could have just been a small-stakes act, playing gigs around Asbury Park.

But music history would, of course, unfold differently. And Springsteen wasn't the first or the last huge success for Clive Davis, the man at the helm of Columbia Records at the time. Over more than four decades in the music industry, Davis helped make household names (and, in some cases, icons) out of Billy Joel, Carlos Santana, Barry Manilow, Alicia Keys, Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston.

Davis shares personal stories about his life and career in his new memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life, and he spoke about it with NPR's Don Gonyea. Click the audio link on this page to hear the radio version, and read more of their conversation below.

DON GONYEA: You describe yourself early in the book as being musically kind of an agnostic. You certainly liked music — you were a big fan of Broadway shows — but you weren't of the music business. You weren't a musician. You were a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who excelled at school and who went to Harvard and wanted to be a lawyer. What happened?

CLIVE DAVIS: You know, life gets affected by lucky breaks. I became a lawyer. I was with a law firm that had CBS as a client. Columbia Records was part of CBS. Here I'm out of law school three years and they come to me and they say, "You know, if you come over to Columbia Records, because you've been doing some nonlitigation contract work for some music companies, you could be chief counsel of Columbia within a year." I was about 27, 28 years old, and the offer was very attractive to me. I had no money. I worked my way through college and law school. I had no vision of being in the music business, but I did take that job. I was their chief counsel for about five years when, out of the blue, there was a reorganization of the company and they said, "I'm gonna make you head of Columbia Records."

So how did you feel? Did you feel prepared?

I was stunned. I was shocked. I honestly was, was shocked to my core.

What was your first step? How do you start to tackle that job?

When you come into something unfamiliar, you watch. I didn't come with any panacea. They were a very successful label in middle-of-the-road music. They had Andy Williams. They had Barbra Streisand. They had a huge, wonderful classical artist division: Vladimir Horowitz, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra. There were preeminent Broadway show cast albums that were really major sellers at the time, whether it was The Sound of Music, West Side Story, My Fair Lady. There were some roots in rock, but rock 'n' roll was not their forte. Music was changing, and I had to really watch and observe and see how it all went.

You describe at one point the need to sign a very important artist, Bob Dylan — to re-sign him. But at the same time, the bigger stars you were worried about re-signing included Andy Williams. The notion that Bob Dylan and Andy Williams were kind of side-by-side at this label kind of speaks to the change that was happening there, or about to happen.

There's not a company today that doesn't have cutting edge along with mainstream; it's not that unusual. At that time, what was unusual was that Dylan was one of the very few rock artists, but — and he was not a major seller — but he was a major, important songwriter that was being popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary and The Byrds. Andy Williams reigned supreme with his own television show; he was a king of middle-of-the-road music. And Barbra Streisand, also. Their three contracts were coming up for renewal, three very important artists. And of course it was a challenge for me because I wanted, clearly, to re-sign all three.

And you did succeed in that?

Yes I did.

There are different chapters in the book named after different artists. You talk about Sly & the Family Stone — I think they get maybe three or four pages in the book, but I could listen to a whole interview about your encounter with them.

My dealings with Sly were to really encourage him. He was so energetic. He was so hardworking. In those days, the Columbia studios were union scale and union-affiliated and they were not open Saturday and Sunday. Sly wanted to open Saturday and Sunday for work, so he would call me over the weekend. We bonded.

You had some style tips for him, which he ignored.

He was an artist that was coming to the fore that really crossed every boundary. He could get rock play, could get what we call "FM underground" play, as well as Top 40 play. But for the depth of what he was doing, I was a little concerned that the costuming was very Las Vegas. ... He had it all figured out, and he took no offense whatsoever. It was a good lesson that when you're in the midst of someone who was a trendsetter and a genius, you let that person totally follow their own wants.

There's a chapter called "Pearl," about Janis Joplin. When did you first hear her?

I went to the Monterey Pop Festival [in 1967]. Really, I thought it was going to be a social weekend. I didn't know what to expect. I had come from New York to California wearing khaki pants and a tennis sweater. And I came into the midst of Haight-Ashbury, with flowing robes and beads and those costumes that signified in its most utopian, pure form, what was going on in the San Francisco and many areas of the West Coast. I was to learn that I was in the midst of a musical revolution — the amplification of the guitar. Music was changing and you just felt it. And even though I couldn't read music and I had never signed an artist, when I saw Big Brother and the Holding Company, when I saw that electrifying, charismatic white soul sister Janis Joplin [the band's lead singer at the time], I honestly was transfixed. I had gotten, for the first time in my life, the almost cliché tingle up your spine. I knew that this was time for me to make my first creative move. [I bought the band's contract] for $200,000 and started my relationship with Janis Joplin.

Clive Davis displays a $500,000 check with Elizabeth Taylor, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder at a charity event in Holywood in 1986.
Nick Ut / AP
Clive Davis displays a $500,000 check with Elizabeth Taylor, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder at a charity event in Holywood in 1986.

"Piece of My Heart," a song she recorded that was a huge it, gets to the kind of relationship you had with some of your artists in terms of what advice you'd pass along. That song was on the album in one form. You wanted to make sure it could get on the radio. What did you do?

There was a rule for A.M. radio at the time: They didn't play anything really over three minutes. [The album version of the song is] well over four minutes. So I brought an engineer in. I made some modifications — not at all interfering with the creativity involved, just adding a chorus and shortening an instrumental passage so that we could be in position for radio if they gave us the shot to play it. And so, with some trepidation, I played it for Janis. She listened to it. She gave me her full approval. "Piece of My Heart" became the big hit from the record and the album soared to No. 1.

It wasn't long after that, unfortunately, that the tragic end to her life came — cutting short a career, too, that had really just begun.

I had no idea that Janis was flirting with death. I mean, she had called me a few days [earlier]. She was so excited about the album she was doing. She played me on the phone — because she knew that I was involved with the music of Kris Kristofferson — she played me "[Me and] Bobby McGee," and oh my God, I can still remember hearing that, and how transfixed I was by the incredible version that Janis did, and the excitement.

You had a falling out with Columbia Records: You were fired, accused of misuse of company funds. What happened.

Ithere was a person in the company — I never hired him, he didn't report to me — but he fraudulently was involved with invoices, and he was involved with a few of mine. And to exculpate himself, he charged that the company could be involved with payola, and it led to a major industry investigation. CBS is a licensed broadcasting company. They felt that their license could be endangered. I was let go. I had to live through a two-year witch hunt because I couldn't say anything during the investigation. The investigation proved fruitless. There was no payola at Columbia. There was never an attempt on my part to falsify any invoices, whether it be my son's bar mitzvah, as was originally [rumored], or anything else. It was coming down to a tax trial, and the government capitulated totally with all of the charges — except if I agreed that when I went to Jamaica with my wife to accept an achievement award and to investigate the Kingston's Jamaica studios, because of what was going on with reggae and Bob Marley, that I should have apportioned my expenses half to business and half to personal. ... So the answer is I took [that deal]. I was exonerated of everything. You don't get the headlines after.

Shortly after you left Columbia, you started Arista Records. What was your vision for Arista when you formed it?

I was using Columbia as a model. After Janis I had signed Aerosmith; Earth, Wind & Fire, Blood, Sweat & Tears; Chicago; Santana; Billy Joel; Springsteen. Columbia had soared during my administration with the artists that I signed with my A&R staff. At Arista I looked at rock — I was to sign Patti Smith, bring in Lou Reed and Graham Parker, attract the Grateful Dead and The Kinks, sign The Outlaws — so that the rock tradition would continue. The thing I did not do at Columbia that I did do at Arista, very profitably and, I think, wisely, was that I honed my ear to songs and [looked] for artists that didn't write, or if they did write, they didn't write enough pop hits for themselves. I looked for hit songs. And we got Arista off to a roaring start. The first [hit] record was "Mandy," which I gave to Barry Manilow.

What do artists like Bob Dylan, Barry Manilow and Sly Stone have in common? Is there something you see that might surprise us?

It's like a network: You can have your 60 Minutes, but you can want your American Idol, too. I wasn't running a boutique label. I grew up at Columbia. We never had just one kind of artist. I love all kinds of music. You know what they share in common? They're headliners. And that's who I look for. It's not for me to determine what a country artist has in common with a hip-hop artist. You go for those with long-lasting careers. And that's what I've had as my target all my life.

Your work has obviously continued: You started a new label, J Records, and there have been more artists. One of those that you write about is Kelly Clarkson. This week she pushed back rather hard against some of the things you say in the book. You talk about disagreements you had about song selection, and about a very emotional moment in your office where she started crying. She says you've got it all wrong, that you're interpretation of it is off-base.

Well, let's say what we don't disagree on. We don't disagree that I found for her, believed in her from the very beginning, believed in her talent, still believe in her talent very much as an artist. Because it was a taint to be an early American Idol winner, no question, I found and brought to her songs like "Since U Been Gone," "Behind These Hazel Eyes," "Breakaway" and others. What we disagree on, in memory, is why she did not like "Behind These Hazel Eyes," or "Since U Been Gone," or what my first reaction was after she had recorded "Because Of You." I certainly stand by my memory. There was a previous disagreement where Kelly wonderfully put a statement out that said that she recognizes everything I've done for her and how appreciative she is and not to let them overplay this. ... I want to make it very clear: Kelly Clarkson is growing as a talent every year. I saw her this year on the Grammys. I heard and saw her do "Tennessee Waltz" and "Natural Woman" and she really was special. So I know that Kelly Clarkson is going to continue to have an important career. And I believe it will be a lasting one.

Davis and Carlos Santana pose with the musician's record-tying eight Grammys in Los Angeles in 2000.
Reed Saxon / AP
Davis and Carlos Santana pose with the musician's record-tying eight Grammys in Los Angeles in 2000.

What's the one that you look at and you go, 'Oh man, I wish I'd signed them'?

It's always been John Mellencamp. When I auditioned him, he was so close to Bruce Springsteen, whom I did sign prior to that. it was just too close, even though he clearly was to become in his own right an iconic American rock artist. A few years ago [Mellencamp told me,] "Listen, my hero at that time was Bruce Springsteen. I had not developed my songwriting craft at all whatsoever. So, put your mind at ease. When I auditioned for you, there was no question, I was too close to Bruce Springsteen and I understand what vibe you picked up." So that was very reassuring. That was really a very nice thing to hear.

In this memoir, you reveal that you have been in what you describe as a strong monogamous relationship with a man for the last seven years. How did you decide to publicly reveal that part of yourself?

After my second marriage failed ... I said, "You know, could I have a relationship with a man? A loving relationship with a man that would involve intimacy?" For a while, before I did get into a relationship, I saw, for a few years, either women or men. And I found that I could be attracted to both. The adage that you're either gay or straight or you're lying, well, that's not true. Bisexuality does exist. And I always knew that if I was going to write my autobiography, I was going to reveal this. And I did. And I hope that there's some positivity. I'm not doing it to martyr myself. It's no big deal. ... I know for me, I'm attracted to the person and not the gender.

Do you ever say, "I've had enough of this business?"

Never. Or I would not be still be doing it. ... Extending the careers of these iconic artists has been a source of great reward and fulfillment to me. If your health is good, if the report cards are good, you keep on doing it. And I love it. I've given back by endowing an institute at NYU [The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music] for students to study contemporary music and follow their dreams, so I'm continuing to follow mine.

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