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At the Top of Pop


by Tommy Mottola
Grand Central, 389 pp., $27.99
Elliott Landy/Magnum Photos
Janis Joplin and the music mogul Clive Davis at a party celebrating the signing of her band to Columbia Records, New York City, 1968

Clive Davis, the mogul of moguls of pop music through the past half-century, published a relatively fluent and interesting memoir called Clive—in 1974. In 335 pages it carried him from his (not too) humble beginnings to the traumatic moment when he was fired, without warning or mercy, from his top job at Columbia Records, which he had carried to the heights of the industry. (The first casualty of his abrupt departure, after he was escorted out of the corporate building by security guards, was that Columbia suits scotched the deal he had painstakingly crafted to keep Bob Dylan with the company. They lived to regret it.)

Now, almost forty years later, he retells this story, though in only about 170 pages of the staggering 551 it takes him to give us all of The Soundtrack of My Life. Unfortunately, the earlier version of his rise to the top is far more lively than the current one. Back then he was telling a story; now he’s establishing the official version. Also, he had a more spirited collaborator back then (James Willwerth) than he does now (Anthony DeCurtis). Perhaps “spirited” and “official” are mutually exclusive.

Here’s that early story. Clive Davis was born, in 1932, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn into what he reports to have been a warm, sociable household—not much money, perhaps, but affording him a full life centered on the Dodgers, radio (Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Burns & Allen), double features, ice cream, and girls. Music didn’t mean much to him, although he did like Bing. As he put it in Clive, “My ‘act’ was schoolwork. I was your basic, garden-variety, ambitious, upwardly mobile, hard-working Jewish boy from Brooklyn. I was bound to go beyond my parents. It was simply the way things were.” Of course, he was especially smart and capable: not every ambitious Jewish boy from Brooklyn was always at the top of his class in elementary school and Erasmus Hall High School, or was awarded a full scholarship to New York University (where he was president of the freshman class and then of the student council), and then another scholarship to Harvard Law. As he puts it, “I just seemed to have a self-starting drive from birth.”

After Harvard, his hard work, ambition, and eye for the main chance propelled him into and out of the prestigious law firm headed by Sam Rosenman, adviser to Roosevelt and Truman, and then to the legal division of Columbia Records, where he flourished, fascinated by the music industry if not by the music itself. His great conversion experience was hearing Janis Joplin at the 1967 Monterey Music Festival; until then he’d been successfully negotiating new contracts with Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Andy Williams, and signing the English flower-singer Donovan. Now he was overwhelmed by a phenomenal new singer and her “vital, seething, raw talent…a force so compelling that it rode down fatigue, strain and the limits of endurance, to reach the very core of human capacity. Few artists have ever mattered so much to me as Janis.” You believe it, and you get here the clue that explains how the Brooklyn student council president turned into the great impresario of cutting-edge rock. While remaining a shrewd, even ruthless businessman, he had been born again as a true believer.

Passionate enthusiasm combined with prodigious know-how carried him ever upward in the pop music business, as he built an unparalleled reputation for spotting and nurturing talent, plotted brilliant promotional campaigns for singles and albums, and snatched success from the jaws of other clever—but less clever—record producers and executives. His account of the expertise he and his colleagues deployed to convince disc jockeys (the crucial element to success back then) to air his products is fascinating. Ditto his understanding of how crucially important a defining hit single was to the success of an album.

Among the many examples he offers is the way he insisted that Barry Manilow—whom he took on when he started Arista, his own company—add a strong song to his upcoming album in order to jumpstart it. The song Davis chose was “Mandy” (née “Brandy”). Barry would have preferred a song of his own, but he acquiesced and “Mandy” zoomed to number one on the singles chart, the album sold a million copies, and Barry was launched on the career that has lasted forty years or so. You may feel ambivalent about the art of Barry Manilow, the phoenix who rises and rises again, but numbers are numbers.

This story gets told again and again. Perfectly fine singers see themselves as creative artists and insist that their own songs dominate their albums. But not all singers are writers like Bruce Springsteen, whom Davis also helped develop, or Patti Smith, whom he was knocked out by at first sight (“she just gave me chills”), signed up at the start of her career, and whom he totally trusted through the quarter-century of their collaboration, as she did him. No Brandy-Mandy’s for Patti. In 2000, when he was inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was Patti Smith who introduced him, and Davis quotes liberally from her flattering remarks about him. Yes, his ego permits him to do this, but he also displays his genuine awe of talent: “I marvel at Patti’s spirit and I can only say I’m one lucky guy to have been in her corner watching that spirit soar and letting her vision take her where she was destined to go.” Finally, it’s that awe of talent that keeps us rooting for Clive Davis, despite all the reasons he gives us not to.

It’s in the new book that we see a real eruption of the ego, or what, more generously, you might call a kind of naive self-regard—Davis is just so pleased with what his life has turned out to be! This is how he begins The Soundtrack of My Years: “Perhaps my favorite time of the year is the period at the beginning of February leading up to my pre-Grammy party.” It doesn’t occur to him that all of us may not be aware of his pre-Grammy party, though we certainly learn about it quickly—and at length. We hear how Clive and his son Doug and “other family members and party-planning strategists” hole up in “the bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel that is my second home” and that, for the duration, is “the Grammy Party War Room.”

We’re told about the historic moment when an infuriated business attorney kicks a chair out from under fellow mogul David Geffen, prompting Paul Simon to exclaim, “You can’t do that—that’s David Geffen!” We share the excitement of the unforgettable moment of “watching the likes of Gwen Stefani and Donald Trump leap to their feet as Aretha Franklin, backed by Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton, tears into ‘Respect.’” And we share in the anxiety about the fire department holding things up for half an hour while “several tables were dismantled in order to bring the ballroom in compliance with the fire code.” (Don’t worry: “Robin Williams spontaneously quieted the crowd and launched into a hilarious stand-up comedy improvisation.”) There are five pages about the party (it premiered in 1976), and throughout the book we come back to it again and again; it’s a defining element of his view of himself.

Just as defining, and far more irritating, is his assumption that the world needs to hear every detail of everything that ever happened to him. There’s simply no inner censor. “Two school friends lived nearby in Bayside. One was Harold, who was in my house plan, and the other was a girl named Lola Fiur, whom everybody called Rusti because of her fiery red hair. I dated Rusti for a while, and she and I and Harold and his wife, Ruth, remained bonded over the years….” When he decides to write Clive, “I rented a suite at the Hotel Ruxton on Seventy-second Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, just a few blocks from my apartment.” And try this for mind-numbing business minutiae:

I had a great group of executives in place. Roy Lott stepped into the position of executive VP and GM with exceptional savvy and tenacity; our head of promotion, Rick Bisceglia, had come up under Donnie [Ienner] and shared his go-for-the-kill approach; and there were very skilled senior executives in place in marketing (Richard Sanders, Marty Diamond, and Tom Ennis), publicity (Melani Rogers), creative services (Ken Levy), international (Eliza Brownjohn), urban promotion (Tony Anderson), and really across the board.

I’ll spare you the five “top guys” in the A&R department. Maybe this is gripping stuff to readers who were in the industry twenty-five years ago, but The Soundtrack of My Life is meant for the general public—and is being snapped up by it. Or at least by that portion of it that is fascinated by inside stories of the pop music world—the lowdown on the artistic, financial, and personal ways of the stars and the star-makers. (No unsavory gossip, though, about drugs, alcohol, or irregular sexual conduct. The industry, and Davis himself, are more or less squeaky clean in his version.)

It’s not surprising that Davis comes across as knowing what he’s talking about. He was at the heart of the action for half a century. Again and again he identifies salable talent, grabs it for whatever label he’s in charge of, steers it, and tries to protect it—often against itself. Anyone can be lucky, but a track record like his has to reflect a deep understanding of the field. And an ability to change with the times. Here is a lawyer-turned-businessman-turned- producer-turned-mogul who starts off working in a world of Mitch Miller sing-along albums and is still going strong in a world of Alicia Keys, Pink, the Foo Fighters, and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, by way of such major players as Dylan, Streisand, Springsteen, Simon and Garfunkel, Sly and the Family Stone, Chicago, Aerosmith, Billy Joel—all during his Columbia (CBS) days alone.

After he’s ignominiously dismissed from his job on false suspicion of illegitimate expense accounts, he founds Arista, where among other things he propels Whitney Houston into the stratosphere (perhaps his most spectacular success).

He takes more than thirty pages to tell her story—their story—in all its glory and mutual generosity and eventual sadness. He loved her remarkable ability, and we are convinced that he loved her, too. He straightforwardly chronicles the explosive rise to fame—she was the first singer to have seven consecutive number-one singles, surpassing the record shared by the Beatles and the BeeGees—and the eventual downward spiral that was so painful and so public. And then, when she seemed to be recovering, the sudden death (on the eve, wouldn’t you know it, of the annual Grammy party). Davis includes in his account a letter he wrote to Houston analyzing a concert she had given the night before. It’s micromanaging at its best—calm, brilliant, disinterested, and utterly persuasive. Here is Clive Davis doing the job better than anyone else did it, and making it clear to us why his level of success was no fluke: it was laboriously earned and richly deserved.

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