Clive Davis, Star Maker...

The Times: Clive Davis: the ultimate starmaker

Clive Davis signed Janis Joplin, has worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin to P. Diddy, guided Whitney Houston to pop’s summit – and plotted her triumphant comeback this year. We meet the music industry’s Godfather, now 77, but still the ultimate starmaker

Clive Davis is well-connected to an almost comical degree. Visit his MySpace page and you’ll find that the Top 10 of his 3,000-plus “friends” comprises P. Diddy, Eminem, Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Dr Dre, Tommy Lee, John Mayer, Dolly Parton, Amy Winehouse and (odd bedfellow, she) veteran actress-comedienne Carol Burnett. No wonder many of the music industry legend’s less celebrated “contacts” are busily posting comments/compliments in an attempt to direct his priceless attention to their own profiles or latest endeavour. They know that if Davis clocks you and thinks you’ve got something worth working with, you’re more than halfway there. He’s popular music’s Magic Man.

Born and raised in the ethnic melting pot of working-class Brooklyn, and a lawyer by qualification, Davis has been bestowing his favour on the talented and deserving for more than 40 years. Janis Joplin was the first artist he signed, for CBS (the label has long since been subsumed into the mighty Sony BMG corporation), and Leona Lewis is one of the more recent to have profited from his Midas touch. In between, acts ranging from Patti Smith to Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin to Lou Reed, have received his professional attentions, their record sales benefiting accordingly. But one artist above all others is indebted to him.

Davis not only took Whitney Houston to superstardom in the Eighties, but now – post-drugs, her abusive marriage to Bobby Brown and the resulting career collapse – he has restored her to that elevated position in a way few thought possible. I Look to You, their first collaboration in 10 years, entered the US charts at No 1 in September and, helped by her recent performance on The X Factor (on which Davis also made a fleeting appearance), went to No 3 here in the UK. The old showbiz adage is true, it seems: everyone really does love a comeback kid. “Yes,” concedes Davis. “But so emphatic a result is also saying, ‘She’s still got it. That voice can still excite millions all over the world.’”

I meet Davis at the Dorchester during a flying visit to London. Entering his suite, I find him listening to Houston remixes, completed only minutes earlier in the US, and e-mailed over for his approval. At his request, they are being played at such volume (“And still a little higher, please”) that vases on the mantelpiece dance back and forth, in danger of crashing to the hearth. Outside the club world, surely only teenagers listen to music this loud; Davis is 77. “I’m dysfunctional as to my actual years,” he notes, smiling, before delivering his detailed verdict on the tracks to an assistant, for instant relay back to the producers who are on standby in Los Angeles, despite it being 4am there. “When I’m working with Alicia [Keys, another of his discoveries], I’m her age. When I’m with P. Diddy, I’m his. It’s having something in common that matters, and that something is our passion for music.” But in Davis’s case, it goes beyond that. So finely attuned is he to the shifting nuances of commerciality in the fields of rock, pop, soul/R&B, country and easy listening that he is credited with having the best “ear” in the business. Though not infallible, his strike rate is beyond compare when it comes to making hits and, hence, making money. “I keep on doing it because my report cards are still good,” he shrugs. “If they weren’t, I’d pass the baton on. It’d simply be too frustrating to continue.”

That he should select a schoolboy-era measure of his success is telling. Davis was a good son, eager to please, working diligently to better himself. But in his late teens, and within less than a year of each other, both his parents died, leaving Davis to put himself through university and, later, Harvard Law School on scholarships that were extended year-on-year only if he continued to meet his target grades. No wonder performance is all to him. But beyond that, his obsession with achieving excellence? “I have no idea where that comes from, any more than I know where I got my so-called ‘ear’. Genetic, I assume. It’s just always been there, the wanting to be as good as I can be. Were I still a lawyer [he first joined CBS in that capacity], I’d be the same.”

This pursuit of his own personal concept of perfection can be punishing for the artists with whom he works. Some are only too grateful to surrender to his artistic vision, knowing the likely commercial benefits: Rod Stewart is one such who springs to mind, Davis having effected for him a late-career sales explosion with the American Songbook albums. Others feel themselves steamrollered. Carly Simon, for whom he engineered a brief chart renaissance in the late Eighties, once told me of having been reduced to tears by his demands for another, yet another and still another take of song after song. More recently, Take That’s Gary Barlow declared himself no fan of Davis either.

“Whatever media you’re working in and with whom – DiCaprio with Scorsese or whoever – it’s a question of deciding the level at which the bar should be set, and then not lowering it,” he counters. “Merely satisfactory isn’t good enough. I’ll make whoever do it again and again until I get something special. If they accept your track record, they’ll go along with you, even if your requests are not always met with glee. If they don’t, well...” The sensible artist wins whatever small victories he can, then bows to the greater force.

Barry Manilow admitted recently on Desert Island Discs that his 30-year relationship with Davis has been punctuated by regular battles of will but that, at the end of the day, he accepts the older man knows best what the public wants to hear. Harry Connick Jnr, for whom Davis recently exec-produced a standards album, has also spoken of creative arm-wrestling but ultimate compliance. Two albums into her career, American Idol’s first winner, Kelly Clarkson, fought against being similarly steered by Davis and attempted to strike out in her own direction, but was forced by falling record and ticket sales to recant and return to him.

Given his effect on the fortunes of those who put themselves in his hands, does he feel sufficiently appreciated? “Someone like Carlos Santana is grateful daily [Davis rescued him from obscurity following his Seventies prime, working with him on 1999’s Supernatural album, which sold 15 million copies]. Not a month goes by without my getting an incredible bouquet of flowers and a handwritten note, reminding me of all it has meant to him. Not everyone else is as generous, it’s true, but I don’t do it to trigger gratitude. And for me to pick out those few who’ve required my patience... No. Not when the likes of Barry, Aretha and Whitney have been so thankful over the years.”

Yes, Whitney. Having been so instrumental in building her into an all-conquering brand, I cannot help but wonder how he felt watching her let it all ebb away. The question is met with a long silence. “I only hesitate because I’ve never before thought of it in that way,” he says eventually, before embarking on a wilfully oblique response. “It used to be, if you were divorced, you couldn’t be president of the United States, then it was discovered the public could take such a thing in their stride. In Whitney’s case, I think those who were affected emotionally by her songs have been very hungry to hear that voice on new material. Whether or not their view of her as an individual has been altered by issues she may have had to face, I just don’t know.”

This reluctance to extend his influence from the professional realm to the private is not new. I first met Davis in New York 18 years ago, when he was head of Arista Records, and I recall him insisting then he knew nothing of his artists’ lives outside the work sphere, something I found difficult to comprehend. “But it’s still the same. I don’t mean to imply I hold them at arm’s length: I’m there for them professionally almost every waking hour of the day. But unless one of them comes to me for advice regarding personal matters – and generally they don’t – then their private lives remain exactly that. Private. I’d never have asked Whitney, ‘So how’s it going with Bobby?’ I just wouldn’t.”

Even so, to be a facilitator of the celebrity dream so many cherish carries with it certain responsibilities, surely? “Stardom at too early an age can be a difficult cross for an individual to bear, particularly without a stable personal life,” Davis acknowledges. “My first signing was Janis Joplin. Her talent was prodigious. She had everything to live for… But what you cannot know when you work with someone is what demons they carry with them. Look at Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe… Many who achieve that elusive stardom are just not able to become whole people due to the personal stresses in their lives.”

It would seem, then, as if the mentoring role he assumes in particular with his younger artists extends only to matters musical and professional. Houston, for example, speaking recently about how Davis coaxed her back into the studio after a seven-year hiatus, referred to him as her “industry father”. The description is an apt one. His brand of paternalism may not have allowed him to ask the singer about her private life at a time when the world’s media was fixating upon it, but it has since involved Davis lavishing every bit as much care and attention on orchestrating her comeback as he did in first launching her 25 years ago.

Such pragmatism, coupled with that legendary “ear”, may be exactly why Davis is so revered by the business/art form he serves – indeed, why he has survived so long and is still at the very top. And the combination continues to serve him well. You might expect such a master craftsman to be repelled by the past decade’s explosion of TV talent shows, to rail against their conveyor-belt ethos of music-making. Instead, he records and promotes the favourite and best American Idol contestants, intent on turning instant television celebrities into genuine artists.

“When you’re the head of a record company [J, a division of Sony BMG], you are a businessman with a responsibility to make money,” he says, “and no matter what your personal musical predilections, Idol represents a very strong commercial opportunity. But I am not interested in simply producing souvenir records for those who’ve voted [any winner or runner-up, he tells me, can expect to sell between 450,000 and 650,000 units of their first release as a matter of course]. What I’m looking for is sales in the millions – six in the case of Carrie Underwood [the young country singer, victorious in the fourth season, has crossed into the pop mainstream under Davis’s tutelage]. Sales like that you earn.”

He is, he says, optimistic for the future of the music industry, despite tumbling CD sales, piracy and “the tough transitional period” to digital. “There was a temporary idea that music should be free, so we’re wrestling with that and it’s not easy. The conversion to digital, though rapid, is not rapid enough to offset the decline in CD album sales. But it’s not like music has gone out of fashion and people don’t need it any more. The need is as urgent and involving today as ever it was. Yes, these have been difficult times, but I believe that once this transition period balances out, we’ll see that need manifest itself once more in bottom-line results and healthy record companies.”

Such talk of the future makes me wonder if he wishes he were young again, starting out anew in the medium that still energises him? Davis smiles. “I’d have to say yes, of course. I love life and I love music. But you have to be a realist. I’m just grateful that at an age when many others are not active, I’m still able to indulge my passions.”

Family is another of them: “I cherish those relationships. I have dinner with my children [all four are lawyers] and grandchildren each Sunday. We take three vacations together each year. We try to balance it.” But work – and music – continues to exert its pull, and there is absolutely no thought of retirement. “It’s all down to those report cards,” he reminds me, before turning his attention back to the Whitney remixes. “As long as they continue to be good…”




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