Exec Davis still kicking at 80
Hitmaker turning attention to Broadway musicals
When Clive Davis announced his latest project – a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady next year – it seemed to mark a step away from the music mogul’s laser-like focus of making hits – and hitmakers.
But Davis, 80, still has his eyes on the charts. With My Fair Lady, his goal is to bring Broadway back to the days when its songs topped the charts, something that hasn’t been the case for the Great White Way in some time.
“Even Book of Mormon does not have memorable songs, classic songs that the era of the ’20s, ’30s produced. . . . so I looked into the rights of My Fair Lady,” Davis said happily in his two-floor penthouse apartment in midtown Manhattan. “I really want to make an event of it.”
It’s a lofty goal – but it’s one that wouldn’t surprise many if reached by Davis, whose iconic career has included making superstars of acts as varied as Whitney Houston, Barry Manilow and Alicia Keys, creating second acts for legends like Aretha Franklin and Santana, and playing an integral role in the careers many others, including Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin and Billy Joel.
Davis discusses some of these achievements in his 551-page autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life (Simon & Schuster), released last month. Written with music journalist Anthony DeCurtis, it includes behind-the-scenes details and revelations that provide new insight into a life well-documented.
While his disclosure that he’s bisexual has generated the most headlines, the book also shows why Davis holds a rarefied status in the music world – an executive almost as famous as his performers.
While Davis is revered for his ability to create superstars and identify classic songs, Patti Smith says what makes him special is his dedication to true art – whether it was commercial or not.
“He had room in his stable for a dark horse,” said Smith, who Davis signed in 1975. “I was very raw and we talked about goals and I really felt Clive – whatever his mainstream reputation – he does love artists. He does love people that are unique. He has a weakness for the unique performer.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was signed to Davis’s Arista label for 27 years. She said: “Clive is synonymous with the music business at its best.”
“I always had a home with Clive. Even now, I know that if I had no label and needed a home, he would offer it to me,” Smith added.
Davis, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member himself, plays it cool when he chats about his accomplishments, sitting at a large dinner table on the ground floor of his large, warmly designed apartment.
His described writing the book – which he started two years ago “mainly on weekends” – as “hard work,” especially his chapter about Houston. He introduced her to the world as a beautiful young princess of pop with a wunderkind voice; she died in 2012, on the night of his annual pre-Grammy party, after years of substance abuse and self-destructive behavior.
His book includes letters he wrote to Houston, when she was at the top of her career and when she was on drugs.
“Unless the person sinks to that level that they want help, nobody has that degree of influence to affect the situation. I was hopeful, however, that she did muster the courage to give it all up,” Davis said.
Davis said Houston’s bad smoking habit is what really hindered her soaring vocals.
“I would never say, ‘I would drop you’ – all I would say is . . . ‘I can’t record you until your voice is restored,’ ” he recalled.
Surprisingly, the book tidbit that has gotten the most attention has nothing to do with any of his A-list artists, but him – namely, his sexuality.
Davis writes that he first slept with a man in the 1970s and dated another man from 1990 to 2004. He’s been with his current boyfriend for seven years. The twice-divorced father of four says his decision to come out now should not be seen as a concerted effort to hide his sexuality in the past.
“No. No. I’m not in movies or a performer,” he answers confidently.
“Artists, actors, actresses, it’s a whole different thing. I can’t speak for them. That’s a whole different aspect. They’re talking about a different situation if they’re gay and they’re hiding it,” he said. “I think that much progress has occurred in society, but there are still only eight or 10 states that passed same-sex laws, and the opposition is quite fierce, so I know there’s a long road to go.”
Davis, a Harvard Law School graduate, became president of Columbia Records in 1967 and founded Arista and J Records in 1975 and 2000, respectively (J Records was dissolved in 2011 ago after launching the career of Keys). He says the key to his success was recognizing his weaknesses.
“To be a major player, I knew that I had to rely on other people. So the mark of a wise executive is to know your strengths, but also to know what has to be shored up,” Davis explained.
That’s where L.A. Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds came in. In a joint venture, Davis, Reid and Babyface formed Arista/LaFace in 1989, guiding careers for OutKast, TLC, Usher, Toni Braxton and more multiplatinum acts.
Their collaboration also introduced Diddy’s Bad Boy Records in 1994, which included the Notorious B.I.G., Ma$e, 112 and other platinum-sellers.
“It was friendly, it was competitive, but it was never nasty competition between any of us,” said Reid, who replaced Davis as head of Arista in 2000, and is now head of Epic Records. “It was always Clive helping me, me helping Clive, Babyface helping Puffy, Puffy helping me, Puffy helping Clive, Clive helping us all.”
Davis is the chief creative officer at Sony Music. He says his main musical priority is Oscar- and Grammy-winner Jennifer Hudson.
“She can do anything,” Davis said. “She can do everything.”
Hudson’s 2008 Grammy-winning self-titled debut and 2011 sophomore release, I Remember Me, have achieved gold status. She says her upcoming album, due out this year, will showcase her evolution and her growing relationship with Davis.
“This album will reflect who I am as an artist and a voice . . . and not just a sound vocally,” she said. “Before, I never even thought of that. I’m like, ‘I’m singing a song and it’s a song. Okay, ain’t that a musician? Isn’t that an artist?’ No. It’s a completely different thing, and he’s opened my eyes to that.”