At the Top of Pop

Hitmaker

by Tommy Mottola
Grand Central, 389 pp., $27.99
gottlieb_1-062013.jpg
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 …

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