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.
Responding as always to the changing musical climate, when country makes a comeback, he launches a Nashville branch of Arista that comes up with such superstars as Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, and Brad Paisley, and when the corporate situation changes, he starts up newer successful labels, like Jive, under the BMG (Bertelsmann) umbrella. Through an association with American Idol, he oversees the rise of Carrie Underwood and undergoes excruciating travails with Kelly Clarkson, Idol’s first winner, to which he devotes thirteen pages. Along the way, with his almost infallible instinct for reigniting careers in decline, he rescues Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Rod Stewart, Dionne Warwick, and most dramatically, he engineers the amazing comeback of the guitarist Carlos Santana. Santana’s 1999 album Supernatural—number one for twelve weeks, twenty-eight years after his last number-one album—sold 30 million copies worldwide.
Triumph after triumph, though occasionally an artist slips through his fingers (Tom Petty) or slides from the heights, usually through ignoring his counsel (Melissa Manchester, Taylor Dayne). Among his big successes—and we have to exercise charity and forgive him for it—was Kenny G, the sort-of-jazz sax player to whom he devotes six somewhat defensive pages. But even the greatest successes fade away, so let’s end this catalog of Clive Davis’s achievements with his account of the fading of Kenny—a passage that will also alert you to the quality of the Davis/DeCurtis prose style. As his career started to go sour, “my relationship with Kenny became a little contentious.” And then more contentious:
When you reach that point, you have to break apart professionally, which was very painful. You’ve been through so much and reached such heights. You try to keep it warm and cordial, try to focus on the really incredible shared experience you’ve had, but nearly all endings are sad endings. You’ve been like family for many years. I had been to Kenny and Lyndie’s wedding, had shared their joy when their son Max was born. Kenny always performed for me whenever a special occasion arose. So I wanted to keep it going but just knew I couldn’t. Without the opportunity of working on a new album with an artist, your lives do separate…. I know that what we did together was exceptional, and from my perspective it always will be.
And what about Clive’s other life—the nonprofessional life, the inner life? He takes us very lightly through marriage number one (two kids) and marriage number two (two kids), and into the present. Lest we think that he has
little or no life outside work, let me correct that notion right now. First, I love my family, and since I don’t believe in loving a stranger, I make every effort to spend time with them. Each week I have dinner in New York with three of my kids, Fred, Lauren, and Doug—along with Fred’s two sons, Austin and Charles, Fred’s wife, Rona, and Lauren’s husband, Julius, and their son, Matthew, and daughter, Hayley…. My son Mitchell, his wife, Clare, and their son, Harper, and daughter, Sloane, live in Los Angeles, so when I’m there, which is about six times a year, we share at least one or two meals together on each visit.
Then there are the twenty or so special friends who spend weekends with him at the house in Pound Ridge. (“We gather on Friday night at one of the excellent restaurants in the area, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday, and dinner on Saturday, are catered for up to forty of us.”) Best of all are the big family-and-friends summer vacations. “Whether it’s a house in St. Tropez for one group or a boat cruising the Mediterranean with another, I do fill my annual five weeks of vacation with family members and family friends with the bonding that truly makes life a joy.” It’s an idyllic life, and he loves it.
And, oh yes, as marriage number two is failing in the mid-1980s, he’s “openly approached by a young man of about twenty-five who happened to be a huge music fan,” and one thing leads to the next thing until “on this night, after imbibing enough alcohol, I was open to responding to his sexual overtures, my first such encounter with a male.” Nontraumatic divorce, gratifying relationships with this man and several women, until in 1990 (he’s fifty-eight) he enters into a thirteen-year monogamous relationship with a male doctor. And a year after that ends, he begins another monogamous relationship with a man that has lasted until now.
What are we to make of this startling turn of events? (It emerges on page 545 of his 551-page text.) What he’s most eager to have us make of it is that, although he had no previous homosexual experiences (or impulses?) before the awakening, since then he has been as sexually happy with men as he had been with women; that there really, truly are bisexuals, and he is one of them. It’s also important to him that we know that everyone in his family has been totally supportive, except that one son “had a tough adjustment period,” but “that after one very trying year, the issue became totally resolved between us.” As to why he didn’t go public with his new life, a primary reason “was my strong feeling that I didn’t want to be typecast.”
He didn’t have to worry: There’s no way Clive Davis can be typecast. I say “Hat’s Off” to his venturesome sexual/emotional life—hetero, homo, or bi; he wants to make it clear that he’s as comfortable with his sexuality as he appears to be with all other aspects of his life, so why should we be uncomfortable with it? What I’m uncomfortable with is the way the reader is sandbagged with this information so late in the book, without the slightest preparation, and without real reflection or insight. But Davis’s insights have always been directed outward, toward his work.
In the final pages of his book he takes a quick look at the condition of the music business today, and he’s optimistic, although, given the new technology of streaming and iPods, “audiences seem to have lost interest in artists and what they have to say.” He’s pleased that his Grammy party is now an official Grammy-week event, co-hosted by the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), and “is still going strong—more exclusive, more unique, and more festive than ever.” He’s proud of his philanthropies as well as of his achievements. He’s gratified when former colleagues “make sure I know of [their] continuing high regard and deep respect.”
And he hasn’t forgotten the people who he says have been inspirations to him. There was the imposing (and crafty) Goddard Lieberson, his early mentor at Columbia, who not only taught him the corporate ropes but was a model in many things, including dress:
Goddard was elegant, informed, incredibly witty, and very articulate, as attractive a figure to the high-end media as many of the artists on the label. He was always very handsomely turned out. Matching his pocket handkerchief with his English-made shirts was a signature element of his style, a touch I have adopted to this day.
And then there was what you might call the anti-Goddard in his life—the wild reckless talent and lifestyle of Janis Joplin, whom he recalls in his final sentences:
I think often of that day in June 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival—the pulsating excitement of Janis Joplin’s performance, the sense of possibility in the air, the exhilaration of realizing what a life pursuing your biggest dreams might be like—when a door opened to what the rest of my life would be. That so much came from the events of that one day has been an incredible gift, and the passion I felt then is with me still.
Another man might have found it painful to harbor these apparently contradictory influences, but Davis doesn’t register them as contradictory—because for him they haven’t been. He had to be Goddard in order to be able to hatch Janis; he had to have Janis to spark his life into meaning. Given his irrepressible vigor and adaptability, his relentlessly positive response to necessity and possibility, can we fault him for his almost touching complacency and self-congratulation?
But there are mysteries, the most perplexing of which is his relationship to music itself. As we have seen, it didn’t mean much to him as he was growing up. There seems to have been no classical music in his background, and although he took so much from Goddard Lieberson, he didn’t absorb his passion for it—no Stravinsky connection, for instance, although he did once take the Vladimir Horowitzes to a disco blasting Motown all night. (“They loved it.”) In Clive, he speaks at length about his relationship with Columbia’s major symphony orchestras—that is, about their contract negotiations, never the music. Jazz doesn’t really have a grip on him, although he seems to have enjoyed his ruffled relationship with Miles Davis. (All relationships with Miles Davis were ruffled.) He hardly ever refers to the wonderful pop of his time that wasn’t in his immediate line of sight: Elvis, the Beatles, Motown. What does grip him is performance—far more than what is being performed. And most of all the industry itself: “My love of the business dominates all my memories.”
This frame of mind stands out even more clearly when seen in contrast to the impassioned response to music of Davis’s younger rival Tommy Mottola, whose autobiography, Hitmaker, was published only weeks before The Soundtrack of My Life. Tommy came from the Bronx, not Brooklyn; was Italian, not Jewish (although he converted to Judaism to marry his first wife). His book is personal in the best way—it winningly conveys Mottola’s exuberant, generous, impetuous personality, his directness and sometimes unnerving honesty. But the chief difference between the two moguls is that for Mottola, everything started with the music. His family made music, the streets he grew up in were filled with music.
Music was around me from morning till night. From the time I was two years old I would climb on the stool and bang on the keys of our family piano. But there was one single defining moment that ran through me like a bolt of electricity when I was eight years old: that was the first time I heard “Don’t Be Cruel” blasting through my sisters’ AM radio. The beat and the rhythm of that song branded me forever and was everything that motivated and inspired me to become what I became.
He became a (failed) musician himself. He then started in the trenches at the very bottom of the industry, and went on to the very top. His artists are a roll-call of fame—Hall & Oates, John Mellencamp (not Mister Nice Guy), Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion (it was he who masterminded her singing “My Heart Will Go On” on the Titanic soundtrack). His account of dealing with Michael Jackson’s dementia and megalomania is chilling and pitiful. And central to his story is his professional and personal relationship with Mariah Carey—his Whitney Houston—whom he helped propel into superstardom and, famously, married. It was a mistake, which he manfully acknowledges: he was twenty years older and should have known better; and he did know better when he entered into a third, and happy, marriage. His book, then, is a chronicle of professional and personal success, yet it never seems ego-driven. Because it’s music-driven.
But even if Tommy Mottola is a very different kind of mogul from Clive Davis, he recognizes and salutes Davis’s accomplishments. “When I first started out,” he says, “I could only hope to come close to achieving some of Clive’s success. His work in this industry is unrivaled. Everybody in this business looks up to him.” Does it come as a surprise that this tribute appears not in Hitmaker but is quoted by Davis himself in The Soundtrack of My Life?