Exclusive: Clive Davis has signed hundreds of stars over the years to record contracts.But the two he says slipped away: Jackson Browne– Davis was called away during his audition– and John Mellencamp. But Clive signed plenty. Janis Joplin offered to “ball” him to seal their record contract, sight unseen. He declined. Davis– father of four, grandfather to five, married twice, and the youngest 80 year old you’ll ever meet– tells all in his sensational and engrossing memoir, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” published officially today. Included is a rare personal view revealing Davis’s journey to bisexuality—elegantly told but unsurprising to friends and family. The book is written with Anthony DeCurtis. I couldn’t put it down, frankly.
Davis’s stories are about the history of the American record industry from when he arrived on the scene in the early 1960s. And while people often accuse Davis of simplifying the truth, or take too much credit, “Soundtrack” lays it all out there—it take 600 pages to name everyone who helped, recall who was where and when, and how it all happened.
Even I was surprised because I know a lot of this stuff—Clive gives a hugely candid and frank account of his interactions with all the execs, and all the artists he was involved with – from Whitney Houston (see my separate story) and Puff Daddy to Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Chicago, and Earth Wind & Fire. He turns out to have been a very good observer and an excellent listener.
Davis left Columbia Records in a huge scandal in 1974. But now he sets the record straight: his sudden dismissal was attributed in the press to paying personal expenses—including for his son’s bar mitzvah—from company funds. But it was a set-up, of course, fueled by politics at Columbia/CBS designed to oust him. A second scandal erupted, prompting a government investigation of payola. Six charges were filed against Davis; five were ultimately dropped. He wound up paying a meager fine of $10,000. When the judge in the case wrote the final order, he apologized to Davis for all the unnecessary bad publicity.
Davis—a self -made Harvard man– was exonerated but things got so out of hand that his license to practice law was suspended. Here’s a revelation: he re-applied in 1996, took the New York state bar exam, and passed with high marks. This was, mind you, at the height of his success running Arista Records. Now, that is amazing. And to make it even sweeter: as chief creative consultant and house legend, Davis now commands an office with stunning views on the top floor of the Sony Music building—high atop Columbia Records. So there.
Another chess move: Clive almost joined Robert Stigwood to run his record company after leaving Columbia and before starting Arista. This would have been right before “Saturday Night Fever” and the BeeGees broke out. But Ahmet Ertegun killed the deal, Davis says. The backstage conference room stuff in “Soundtrack” is not to be missed.
There are tons of great stories. Some will be disputed, but I doubt Clive was going to include key anecdotes about rock stars he aided if he thought they would contradict him. And it’s the little things that resonate. For instance: he blithely—and without much thought of creating a legend per se—advised Bruce Springsteen on how to use the expanse of a large stage one afternoon. Clive worried that Bruce—who was used to playing guitar by himself—would feel dwarfed at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theater opening for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. “He was very daunted by the size of the stage,” Davis recalls. “I actually took him by the hand and walked him all the way from one side of the stage to the other, demonstrating how I believed he needed to move in order to put his incredible songs across in a setting like that.”
A couple of years later, the Boss invited Davis to see him at the Bottom Line. “So Clive,” he said, laughing, “did I move around enough for you tonight?”
You can pretty much dip into “Soundtrack” anywhere. There are numerous jewels here about everyone: Aretha, Dionne, Carly, the Grateful Dead, you name it. I loved the chapter on Milli Vanilli. It starts with a line Mia Farrow says in “The Purple Rose of Cairo”: “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.” Davis says was he “shocked” when he learned that the German singers they met were not the vocalists on Milli Vanilli’s records. Still, he says, with some pride, the records hold up no matter who sang on them. That’s a true music man.
One thing Davis did that is undisputed: he extended the careers of several legends who almost didn’t have second or third acts: Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Rod Stewart, Carlos Santana, even Barry Manilow, as well as The Kinks, The Grateful Dead, and Hall & Oates. Manilow was on Broadway at the start of his career, and he’s there now, 35 years later. And Clive is preparing to make a new record with Aretha Franklin this year.
Clive also cultivated many “American Idol” stars. Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, and more impactfully, Jennifer Hudson, all grew from Davis’s foresight to make a deal with Simon Cowell when the show began its run.
On another note, which I mentioned on Sunday: Clive had an ear for edgy punk and New Wave rock almost before anyone. He wanted to release Ian Dury’s “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” as a single. His radio people advised him against it. This was in 1978, mind you. Now no one would care. Instead they went with Dury’s “Wake Up and Make Love to Me.” Says Clive dryly: “[it] also promoted sex, but at least kept drugs out of the equation.”
PS Clive will ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange this afternoon to launch “Soundtrack.” We’ll watch him on CNBC.