EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: Clive Davis, The Real King of Pop
Clive Davis with Janis Joplin in 1969 / clivedavis.com
I’ve recently discovered a new diet. Each evening when I get home from work I put on the television, turn to Fox News, watch Tucker Carlson for five minutes, and then completely lose my appetite. To be fair, while I spend more time catching up on the day’s events with the other two news networks, even they can grate on my nerves with an endless parade of political pundits who say the same things over and over that I already have figured out on my own. And so it is that I’m usually left trolling for televised entertainment on my Roku, searching for Scandinavian noir or possibly a new Korean film.
One night this week I chose to watch the two-hour-and-three-minute documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, which was released in 2017 after the success of Davis’ autobiography that came out a few years earlier with a similar title. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to watch the entire film, but in a masochistic state of mind I decided to finish what I started. I already know Davis’ story, so there really wasn’t anything new to learn, but some old friends and former colleagues appear in it, and watching five decades of being one of the most successful music moguls squeezed into a two-hour self-promoting infomercial was curiously entertaining.
Now 88 years old, Davis seems to have been spending much of the past six years ensuring his rightful place in the music executive hall of fame. Given that it’s estimated he is worth $850 million, it goes to show you that while money is enough for some, others are more focused on their legacy. To that end, Davis has given dozens and dozens of interviews, has had puff pieces written up in every major newspaper and magazine, and has appeared on endless afternoon talk shows to talk about his life.
It’s hard to imagine that one doesn’t know Davis’ story, but if you don’t, I can give you the condensed version in one long sentence: He was an attorney for CBS; was made president of their record label after two years; got tossed out on charges of fiscal improprieties (and later exonerated); took over a failing indie label called Bell and renamed it Arista; had his thumbprint on a gazillion hit singles as a mentor, producer, sales exec, marketer, and brilliant song-catcher; got fired when he turned 66; was quickly rehired; and continues today as the chief creative officer of Sony Music, the company that eventually bought both CBS and Arista Records. Full circle, and well played.
If you’re a roots music elitist, pop music probably doesn’t hold much space between your ears. But while Davis gave us Tony Orlando, Barry Manilow, Kenny G, and the Bay City Rollers, he is also responsible for discovering and signing an incredible roster of musicians at CBS — including Janis Joplin, Laura Nyro, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, The Chamber Brothers, American Flag, Moby Grape, and Santana — in less than five years. When he took over Bell Records, he signed Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Gil Scott-Heron. Whitney Houston, whom he signed when she was just 19, was the cherry on top of his cake, although one wishes he would have taken as heavy a hand in her personal life as he did with her career.
There is a common thread that people who have worked for Davis will share, and that is his commitment to always winning, and an intense work ethic that he has been suitably rewarded for. He has been both ruthless and skillful in leveraging radio airplay and getting top-shelf exposure in print and on television for his artists. When he signed the Grateful Dead to Arista in 1977, ten years later they scored their only career hit single with “Touch of Grey.” Bob Weir would occasionally change the lyrics of “Jack Straw” in concert from “we used to play for silver, now we play for life,” to “we used to play for acid, now we play for Clive.”
Before I wrap this up I’d like to share my own story about Clive Davis. It happened in 1975 when I was a sales rep for an indie record distributor in Philadelphia that handled Bell Records. We were invited up to the Plaza Hotel in New York for the name change and Arista’s launch and were ushered into a freezing cold room with a huge sound system at the front and about five rows of very uncomfortable chairs. As I think back I believe that it was just a bunch of men wearing suits, and Davis welcomed us and announced we’d be spending the next three hours before lunch listening to several new albums in their entirety with no breaks.
About two hours into the session, also attended by a completely disinterested Lou Reed and the overly enthusiastic Bay City Rollers, nature called, and as Davis flipped a record over I quietly stood up and made my way out to the restroom. In a few minutes I returned to a quiet room with Davis standing arms folded and glaring at me. As I took my seat he asked me if he could now resume, and I could feel my cheeks flush as I meekly nodded my head. For all his intelligence and success, the man was also a pompous bully.
Should you find yourself with nothing to do for two hours and three minutes, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives is streaming on Netflix and a few other places. Or maybe you might do better to go listen to some music and skip the infomercial.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed here at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org