In My Life
I always like to have some entertaining books for my summer reading pleasure. For the summer of 2014, I have found the perfect literary complement to a sunny day by the pool, relaxing in my favorite chair or just sitting under a shady tree. It’s called The Soundtrack of My Life by music industry executive, Clive Davis.
Anyone with any familiarity of the business of music knows who Clive Davis is. If you have 100 or more albums in your music collection, the safe bet is that a fair number of them will have been touched by Mr. Davis’ influence. Over a 50+ year career in the music business, he was the President of Columbia Records, founded and created Arista Records and J Records, Chairman & CEO of BMG North America and currently Chief Creative Officer for SONY Music Entertainment. Not bad for a kid with humble beginnings from Brooklyn.
His name evokes respect and his talent to create hit records, discover talent and run record companies is unsurpassed. It was therefore an easy choice for me to read his second book, “The Soundtrack of My Life.”
While I have never been formally introduced to Mr. Davis, I once spent an evening with him in the same venue. Approximately 20 years ago, American Express sponsored an event called “Song Masters: East Meets West; The Musial Legacy of Both Coasts.” It was held at the infamous Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Scheduled to perform were Brian Wilson, Ronnie Spector, John Phillips, Scott McKenzie and Felix Cavaliere.
So going to a show at the Algonquin Hotel was cool enough, but to be in the legendary Oak Room was even cooler and to have the opportunity to see Brian from the Beach Boys, John from the Mamas & Papas, Felix from the Rascals, Ronnie from the Ronettes and Scott McKenzie was an event not to be missed.
Since there was no assigned seating, I arrived early and was promptly shown to a prime seat location in the Oak Room. The room was long and narrow with circular cocktail tables that could seat two people, at best. The room also had a grand piano. My seat was directly across from the piano. Stools were set up around the piano for the artists to sit and sing their tunes. As the room filled, I was even more impressed with the location of my seat. But then, with about five minutes left before the show was scheduled to begin, a waiter entered the room for a late arrival. I was somewhat perturbed when the waiter placed that table with one chair relatively close to where I was sitting. My pristine view of the piano was suddenly compromised.
A few seconds later, Mr. Clive Davis appeared and comfortably sat himself down on the chair at the newly arrived table. We never made eye contact, never introduced ourselves, but we did spend a magical music evening together in the same room. I normally would have protested the location of the new table and chair, but since the spot was reserved for the great man himself, I quietly demurred inasmuch as it was Clive Davis. To me, at the time he was a superstar and deserving of whatever prime location he desired. Twenty years later, he has eclipsed superstardom to music business legend. I am therefore selecting his book as one of “Mike’s 2014 Summer Reading Picks.”
Mr. Davis grew up in Brooklyn and attended Erasmus Hall High School where he excelled in his studies. His academic achievements in high school earned him a full scholarship to New York University. In the book he makes it quite clear that if his family had to pay for college, they never could have afforded to send him to NYU. Mr. Davis does so well at NYU that he received another full scholarship to go to Harvard Law School. Here too, he gets excellent grades, graduates and promptly gets a job at a law firm as he comes back home to New York City.
He finds work at a small law firm of which one of their clients is CBS, which owned Columbia Records. CBS was planning to expand their operations and wanted their record company to have a more prominent role internationally. Moreover, at this time the legal department at Columbia was a two person operation and with these expansion plans, more lawyers were needed to be hired. So, in 1960, Clive Davis was offered a job at Columbia Records starting at $11,000. a year with the guarantee that when he moved up to chief counsel at the label, he would be in line to be paid $25,000. a year. At the time, those were some pretty impressive numbers.
In the chapter, “The Offer That Changed My Life” Mr. Davis talks about his early days at Columbia, his new married life, a new home on Long Island and his thirst to know all he needed to know about the legal realities dealing with artists, their lawyers and the intricacies of keeping a record company profitable. It is in this chapter that he begins to tell stories about the many artists he interacted with. Those entertaining stories are the very cornerstone of why this book is such a pleasure for any fan of music to read.
He talks about Bob Dylan, who at the time was threatening to walk away from the label. Apparently, Dylan had signed his contract with the company when he was a minor, under the age of 21. His attorneys and business advisors believed that this meant that the contract was illegal. Mr. Davis admits that Dylan had every right to walk away from Columbia. And although Dylan’s first few albums for the record company did not sell well and the culture at the label did not quite understand Dylan’s music, Mr. Davis quickly realized that with the growing audience appeal that followed Bob Dylan, that it would be unwise for the company to let him walk.
Ultimately, Mr. Davis convinced Dylan and his advisors to stay at the label and many years later, Bob Dylan continues to be a major star for Columbia Records right up to the present day. Mr. Davis understood that Dylan’s contract was clearly not enforceable due to the age of Mr. Dylan when he signed it. But he also understood that the primary objective of Dylan’s advisors in bringing this matter to Columbia’s attention was more about getting Bob a better royalty rate on his record sales as opposed to the age issue. Understanding the business side and the artists’ side and making both sides mesh together has always been one of the hallmarks of Mr. Davis’ success. Time and time again, he speaks about the many artists who loved working with him, although some did not and sometimes disagreed with him, but in the end, they were usually able to work together so that both sides could be satisfied with the outcome.
The charm and readability of this book lies in the stories told by Mr. Davis and how he, most of the time solved the issues at hand and as a result allowed the record company to realize significant rises in revenue during his tenure. When he speaks about Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, etc., he was there. He interacted with these musical legends and significantly contributed to their many successes. He is also not shy about describing some of the times when he didn’t sign a prospective artist.
For example, he had an opportunity to sign Jackson Browne, who at the time was unsigned to a record company and was represented by David Geffen. During a meeting attended by Mr. Davis, Mr. Geffen and Mr. Browne, Clive was briefly called away from the meeting which incensed Mr. Geffen. Ultimately Mr. Geffen decided not to have Jackson Browne sign with Columbia and at the same time created his own record company, Asylum Records of which Jackson Browne was the first artist signed to that label resulting in incredible success for Mr. Browne, Mr. Geffen and Asylum.
As is the case in most jobs, there comes s time when the employee, no matter how successful, parts company with the employer. Sooner or later, the employee leaves. The only question is if that departure is instigated by the employer or the employee. Sure enough, in spite of the fact that under Mr. Davis’ direction, Columbia Records was wildly successful earning significant profits, signing the most desired artists on the market and being regarded as the top record company in the world, Mr. Davis is summarily fired. It happens!
Whether you are a CEO, mid-level executive, butcher, tailor, teacher or doctor, if you work for someone other than yourself, odds are pretty good that someday you will leave the company. When Mr. Davis was ushered into his boss’ office, he had no inkling that the axe was about to drop. He describes the meeting as short and the news of his departure unexpected. He was shocked that he was being accused of some financial improprieties and he was even more upset that he was immediately ushered out of the building. Perhaps it was ego or perhaps he wants to now tell the story from his perspective or perhaps he was just being naïve at the time, but Mr. Davis is very forthcoming about his feelings about this chapter in his life and the reader gets a better understanding of Clive Davis, the man as opposed to Clive Davis, the record magnate.
In the chapter of the book titled, “The End of One Fantasy” Mr. Davis talks about his dismissal from Columbia Records. He describes the ensuing law suits, suspension of his license to practice law, the endless meetings, the phone calls, he said/she said all in graphic detail. Eventually, the dust clears, he studies to take the bar exam again and of course, passing that exam to finally get ready for his next employment.
It was this part of the book that showed his vulnerability, his dogged determination to get back on top as one of the foremost executives of the music business and gave us another personal glimpse into what makes Clive Davis tick. As much as I liked his stories about Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Sly Stone, etc. and all the Columbia Records artists, I like this chapter because it was a reality easily understood by most people who work for a living. I cannot comprehend what it is like sitting at a desk across from Janis Joplin having a business meeting with her and her manager or having dinner with all the members of the Grateful Dead or inviting Aretha Franklin to my house for cocktails. These were daily events in the life of Mr. Davis. Similarly, all of the people I know (me included) know what it’s like to leave a job.
Sure enough, a few years after the demise of his employment with Columbia, Mr. Davis formed Arista Records which provided him with even greater success and financial reward than he possibly could have imagined. He made Barry Manilow a superstar, he revived the careers of Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon and Dionne Warwick. Brought us Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famer Patti Smith. He gave new life to the Kinks, Santana and Lou Reed. He formed Arista Nashville which gave us Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson among others. He signed the Grateful Dead to the label. On the jazz side, Kenny G sold millions of records for Arista. With Sean Combs, he formed Bad Boy records as a subsidiary and had rap hits from the Notorious B.I.G. and others. Clearly, there was a full life after Columbia records for Mr. Davis.
But perhaps his greatest achievement with Arista was signing a young woman with an incredible voice to match her incredible beauty in Whitney Houston. Mr. Davis takes us through the successes, the failures, the eccentricities and ultimately the death of Whitney in a most profound way. Yes, he was the President of a major accord company that he built from nothing and yes, his job was to create as much revenue as possible for the company and yes, he always had to make the tough decisions as to what songs to include in which album, but when it came to Whitney, he seemed to temper all those decisions with an almost paternal love for his artist.
Mr. Davis knew full well that even with her successful recording and acting careers, Whitney was spinning out of control. He knew that unless she dealt with her personal demons that her demise was inevitable. It was like watching a train going too fast down a track knowing that if it keeps up at that speed that the next turn would cause the train to fall off the mountain and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
Much like the time when his Columbia deal blew up, the way he handled the death of Whitney Houston gives the reader another personal glimpse into the mindset and sensitivity of Mr. Clive Davis. In both cases, perhaps it was more information than all of us needed to know but at the same time I am glad he went into that degree of detail because I really got to know the man’s innermost thoughts and that was more than worth the price of the book.
Nothing lasts forever and after a successful run, Arista went away, but with the demise of the record label he created, Mr. Davis was amply compensated. He could have easily retired and never have to work another day of his life and still live in an opulent manner, but soon thereafter he formed J Records. Once again, Mr. Davis found success with Alicia Keyes, Jamie Foxx, Luther Vandross and the incredible Rod Stewart with the American Songbook series. Mr. Davis’ dealings with Rod Stewart and Rod’s long-time manager are detailed and well worth noting.
The last chapters of the book speak about his work with American Idol and Kelly Clarkson. He also spends time speaking about his acceptance of “change” and some of the personal issues in his life. Quite frankly, shows like American Idol are not on my viewing list of favorites. I understand their popularity, but not for me. I was struck that at his age, Mr. Davis still was able to spot the upcoming young stars, find suitable material for them to record and manage the affairs of a record company.
Finally, the last chapter in the book talks about Mr. Davis’ sexual preferences. I know we live in a society where privacy is non-existent. The most popular of shows on television have people competing for prize money on a remote location and then unceremoniously kicked off an island. We watch two person teams race around the world where the contestants not only give their best efforts to win, but expend equal energy in sidetracking their fellow contestants. There are reality shows where families switch wives, young women compete for the love of a wealthy man and in our daily lives, and there are more and more surveillance cameras on roads and building spotting our every move. As a result, we get to know more personal proclivities of our celebrities than ever before. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Davis’ sexual preferences are very personal and although I respect him for publicly speaking about. I enjoyed knowing about his dealings with the musicians, but what Mr. Davis does in the privacy of his life, is his business, not mine.
In a 1979 song, “No Surprize” by Steve Tyler of Aerosmith sings “Old Clive Davis said he’s surely gonna make you a star, just the way you are.”
Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead has been known to change the lyrics of the Dead standard “Jack Straw” in concert from “we used to play for silver, now we play for life,” to “we used to play for silver, now we play for Clive.”
The book flows nicely. The stories about the recording artists, their eccentricities, their lawyers and their managers are priceless. And although Mr. Davis can be self congratulatory at times in the book, he gives the reader great insight into a business that looks glamorous to those of us who buy music and concert tickets, but in reality can be a harsh and unforgiving.
To achieve the success that Mr. Davis attained, you have to be incredibly intelligent, be ruthless and nice at the same time, have enormous talent in matching artists to suitable material and be at the right place at the right time to obtain a small degree of luck. He used his innate intelligence, combined it with a gamblers penchant for rolling the dice and admittedly got lucky. And we’re all the better for it. Thank you, Clive Davis for 50 years of music.