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One On 1 Profile: Clive Davis Has An Ear For Musical Success

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For more than 40 years, Clive Davis has helped nurture some of the world's top musical performers. NY1's Budd Mishkin takes a look at his life in this One On 1 profile.

Why is Clive Davis different from all other music executives?

Who else is on a first name basis with both Sean Combs...and Barry Manilow?

"I still call him Puffy," Davis says of Combs. "It might be P. Diddy or whatever the name is these days, but [to me] he's Puffy."

And of Manilow, Davis says, "When I played him 'I write the songs,' he hated it."

How prominent is Clive Davis?

The list of musicians he signed and worked with reads like a Who's Who: Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana, Whitney Houston, and Alicia Keys.

Davis is that rare combo: a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a graduate of Harvard Law School.

He long ago grew comfortable with the limelight, and he is still at it – searching for new talent as the Chief Creative Officer for Sony Music Entertainment.

"I do it 'cause I get great pleasure out of it," he says, "not because I need to keep proving myself."

On Davis' office wall, every picture indeed tells a story. Davis says that when he and John Hammond first signed Bruce Springsteen in the early 1970s, he was was not the dynamic live performer he would later become. In fact, at a record company show in Los Angeles, Davis says that Springsteen hardly moved.

"At the rehearsal I went up and said, 'We're not playing Max's Kansas City, we're not playing CBGB, we have this huge stage so Bruce you've got to...' and I remember walking him from one side of the stage to the other."

Davis had a lot of success with the band Santana in the 70s. But by the 90s Carlos Santana told Davis that his kids didn't hear him on the radio.

"I said to him, 'Are you hungry? Do you want to be on the radio again?” Davis recalls. "It was looked on as Davis' folly. I mean, what is he signing all these years later?"

Yet the resulting album, Supernatural, went on to win nine Grammy Awards.

And then there is the story of Janis Joplin's reaction when Davis signed her in 1968.

"'You and I are connected now,'" Davis recalls Joplin telling him. "'We are an intimate part of each other’s life now.' And she used the common four-letter street term for us to get together more intimately than the signing of a contract."

His response?

"I respectfully declined," Davis says. "With a smile and a big hug."

Only two years after he signed Joplin, she died of a heroin overdose.

"I never knew that she was doing anything but drinking Southern Comfort and Jack Daniels," he says. "Obviously I’ve thought about it. Could I have made a difference?"

Davis says he is there for his artists professionally, but that he tends not to get involved in their personal lives.

Whitney Houston had a string of number-one hits under Davis – but over the past decade, her personal issues, including drug and marital problems, went largely unspoken.

"Personal lives, marriages, divorces, we don’t get into," Davis says. "I’m there as much as they need me professionally."

Davis grew up in Crown Heights, went to P.S. 161, Erasmus Hall High School, and then, on scholarship, to NYU. But as a teenager, his world was turned upside down in one year, when both of his parents died.

"That is the greatest hurt of my life and remains the greatest hurt in my life," he says. "There's nothing more irreplaceable than parents. And when you lose them as a teenager, it certainly is a wound that never heals."

After Harvard Law School, Davis eventually worked for a firm representing Columbia Records.

Following a corporate reorganization, he was suddenly president of the company.

"Those early years there was skepticism," he remembers. "'What is a lawyer doing as the head of Columbia Records?'"

"I had to go by intuition, by the seat of my pants, by common sense if you will, from day one. So I never felt prepared."

A trip to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 opened his eyes about the power of rock music alongside pop music in the marketplace. And he says he found he had an ear for what sells.

The many artists who've enjoyed success with him would certainly agree.

The toughest part of his career came in the mid 70s. Columbia fired him, allegedly for using company funds for personal use – a charge that Davis has always denied.

"There was no payola, there was no issue involving the use of personal funds where I was concerned," he says. "But when you get that exoneration unfortunately the headlines do not publicize that, and you’re left with what had already been published. So you’re dealing with that taint, and you never can eradicate it."

Davis wrote about this first part of his career in his 1975 book, "Clive: Inside the Record Business."

He then started Arista Records, which he ran for 25 years – and the hits just kept on coming.

But when they stop, so too does the business relationship with Davis.

"There were those you have fabulous years with and then you get into an economic difference and you’re no longer involved with them," he says. "That I do regret, because there is a family tie that you did establish. But from a business point of view, the business point of view only, it can’t go on."

In 2011 Davis was given an honorary degree by his alma mater, NYU, which houses the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

Davis says there was no early indication that he would work in the record business. But through a twist of fate he landed there, leading to a lifetime of success, fame and good music.

"At no time ever, until I decide that I want to do other things, have I ever felt that I would not be in the music business or the record business," Davis says. "I found a true passion."

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