Music industry exec Clive Davis

Music exec legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer explains how he discovered his talented ‘ear’ although he never played an instrument and shares the key ingredient for discovering musical artists.

A dominant force in the music business, Clive Davis has a reputation for continually discovering new talent. He began his legendary career at Columbia Records, where he climbed the ranks and became president in '67, and went on to co-found several labels, including Arista—one of the most successful and diverse in history—LaFace, Bad Boy and J Records. Davis has signed and nurtured some of the greats in the business, has multiple Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in '00. He's currently chief creative officer of Sony Music Worldwide.


Tavis: Pleased and honored to have Clive Davis on this program. Back in 1967 he became president of Columbia Records and helped usher in a golden age of popular music. In 1974 he founded Arista Records and cemented himself as the preeminent king-maker in the music game – artists like Billy Joel, Boz Scaggs, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and so many, many more.
Tomorrow here in Los Angeles the theater at the Grammy Museum in downtown will be renamed, appropriately, the Clive Davis theater. Clive Davis, you’re a bad man.
Clive Davis: Well, thank you. (Laughs) Nice to be here.
Tavis: Congratulations on the honor.
Davis: Well, thank you.
Tavis: Does it make you feel old when people start naming stuff after you?
Davis: The truth is, it doesn’t. (Laughter) It really is very heartwarming and I’m tremendously grateful. That’s a major thrill.
Tavis: It’s impossible in a 30-minute show, one-hour show, 15-minute conversation to do justice to all that you have done, but the one question above all else that I’ve been dying to ask you for all these years is how do you develop the ear? Do you play instruments?
Davis: I play no instruments.
Tavis: That’s what I wondered.
Davis: I did not develop my ear. I discovered I had an ear, and it was an accident. I was a lawyer three years out of law school. I was made chief counsel for Columbia Records, and five years later I was made president. I looked, I watched for a while, for maybe a year, until I found myself at the Monterey Pop Festival, and I saw a revolution.
I saw a social revolution, a musical revolution, and I saw an artist there, Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company, with her vibrating and electrifying and just the most inspiring, spine-tingling White soul sister that you would ever see. I got this – if you will, it sounds like a cliché, maybe an epiphany, maybe that tingle, and I said, “You’ve had this job as head of the company for a year. Music is changing. A revolution is in the air,” and I signed Big Brother and the Holding Company.
I started trusted my instinct, and very shortly after that, Blood, Sweat and Tears came and then Bill Graham asked me to go see Santana at the Fillmore West in San Francisco.
Tavis: Great venue.
Davis: I kept trusting my instinct, it was working, and it went on from there.
Tavis: Again, I know this is impossible to answer, but when you say trust your instinct, when you run the list – and again, I gave a few names, you gave a few more, and we’re still not doing justice. We didn’t mention the Queen of Soul, who you worked with, Aretha, and all the other artists.
So we’re not doing justice even to the list of people you’ve worked with. When you said you discovered your ear, tell me more about that. I’m just trying to figure out how you developed this ear that you know when you need to sign this person.
Davis: Well, I don’t read music, and so therefore it’s a matter of initially I was dealing with self-contained artists. I was dealing with rock artists who wrote their own material and who were, as you say, self-contained.
Later, when I founded Arista Records and I looked at the words A&R, artist and repertoire, and I realized there were great artists, like a Dionne Warwick, like an Aretha Franklin, who had a golden voice but did not write, I then started to develop song sense and the construction of songs and what songs – the combination of melody and lyric could be hit songs for artists that don’t write.
So one is common sense; also, an immersion in music that became my passion. The discovery of artists, when you know that someone not only has a good voice but a great voice, like a Whitney Houston, or a combination of a great voice and also an incredible ability to write, like a young renaissance woman like Alicia Keys.
Tavis: Have you figured out yet, in a language that you can share with us, the definition for what makes a good song? You just talked around that, but how does Clive Davis describe, define what a good song is?
Davis: I don’t listen to a song. Many people do. I don’t listen to a song without also studying the lyrics, because to me, the lyric of most songs – I’m not talking about dance songs, which is becoming more and more popular today, but I’m saying to know when you’re really seeing and feeling a copyright.
It’s the melody; it’s the hook, as we say, of the song. Does that melody stay with you? Can you hum it back after you hear it? Is it memorable? Then the lyric, certainly, if it’s a ballad, if you’re looking for your “Greatest Love of Alls,” if you’re looking for “I Will Always Love You,” if you’re looking “Because of You,” you’re listening to a ballad and you’re seeing what impact it has on you.
It doesn’t mean that in hip-hop or in today’s dance world that the lyric is less – not for rap, but the lyric is less for dance records, but when you’re appraising the copyright, you’re appraising the lyric and you’re appraising the hook. How does it stay with you?
Tavis: Because you’ve worked, as we just mentioned, with some of these names in every music genre that there is, what’s the through line, what’s the thread that goes through all of that, the consistency, the continuity?
Davis: Okay, good question. The consistency for me is can this artist become a headliner. I’m not into one-hit wonders. I’m as much into the discovery of the new artists that you mentioned, or the extending of a career of a great artist – of an Aretha, of a Dionne, of – when I saw Luther Vandross or what we’ve been doing with Rod Stewart over the last eight or nine years, with “The Great American Songbook.”
Tavis: Great stuff, yeah – that songbook, yeah, I love it.
Davis: So you love to – the key example of long lasting, of course, is Carlos Santana. Santana was the third artist I ever signed. We reunited in the late ’90s; we did “Supernatural” together. The key ingredient is can they be a headliner, so that after the 15th anniversary of Arista, when CBS did a network special, or after the 25th anniversary of Arista, when they also did a network special, it was a matter of going through each of the artists that performed.
It was a glowing feeling for me, because there was Barry Manilow, a headliner, and whether you like – if you’re a rock and roller, whether you’re not, you have to understand the criterion. They can lift an audience out of their seat. So whether it was Manilow or Dionne or Aretha or Whitney, or whether it was Alan Jackson in country or Brooks & Dunn, or whether it was Kenny G on the sax, or whether coming from the LaFace family with TLC or Usher or Outkast, or Puffy’s camp, with himself and of course he had Biggie and Mace on there.
They’re all headliners, no matter whether it was hip-hop, whether it was pop, whether it was country, whether it was instrumental. These artists can all fill Madison Square Garden.
Tavis: You have been up, you’ve been down, you’ve been employed, you’ve been unemployed, you’ve worked for, you’ve owned. What’s the take-away from all these years of survival in the music business?
Davis: Survival – firstly, I’ve had one occasion where I was not employed. Otherwise – and then I wrote a book on my life in music, and I started Arista Records. Even under those circumstances, I always knew that with music then part of my life, part of who I am, that it would be my lifetime work.
So that it’s really been great for me in the sense that I’ve enjoyed it enormously. The loyalty that I have from the team of people that have worked over the lifetime of my career, the life has been great and it’s been really up, up, up. I have to pinch myself to see that yes, we had to go from Columbia to a brand-new company, Arista, or a brand-new company, J Records.
But the first records for each of these went straight to number one, so you didn’t have the normal anxiety, worrying about would this company make it when we started J. There was Alicia with “Fallen,” there was Luther coming in, there was Busta Rhymes joining us. So that I must say that over the 25 years of Arista, whether it was the – we’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of J along with Arista, the many years where I headed all of it with RCA as a label, to me it’s been one success after another, and it’s been eye-opening and you do have to pinch yourself, my God.
I get as much enthusiasm, so that in these years, when I’m working with Leona Lewis or I’m working with Jennifer Hudson, and Leona comes with “Bleeding Love” and we sell eight million albums around the world, or this “Great American Songbook” sells 22 million over four volumes with Rod Stewart, this is after all the years of Manilow and Whitney and Alicia, so that we’ve – I’m not bragging; I’m just telling you in my head, we’ve never had a dry period.
Tavis: This conversation has to end, not because I’m out of time, but because I’m feeling like a slacker. (Laughs) I feel like I ain’t done nothing in my career yet. You talk to Clive Davis and all this guy has done, and most importantly he’s still doing it, and that’s why he’s in town, to be appropriately honored for all that he has done and continues to do in the world of music.
I can’t imagine living in a world without music, but just imagine living in a world without the names of the people that he alone has worked with. So Clive Davis, an honor to have you on this program.
Davis: Well, thank you so much.
Tavis: My pleasure. Good to have you here.
Davis: Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm