One of the most successful and enduring figures in 20th and 21st century popular music, Clive Davis served as president of CBS Records, where he discovered such performers as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Aerosmith and Janis Joplin. He would later establish his own label, Arista, which became a powerful force in the recording industry on the strength of such artists as Whitney Houston, The Notorious B.I.G. and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Patti Smith, Usher, TLC and countless others. His unerring knack for uncovering top talent made him the target of corporate shakeups at CBS, Arista, and his subsequent label, J Records, but in each occasion, Davis emerged not only victorious, but with greater positions of power within newly formed recording entities, including Sony Music, which made him its COO in 2008. A Grammy winner for Santana's unheralded 2000 comeback Supernatural, as well as a non-performer inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Clive Davis was one of the few executives within the industry who truly deserved the title of music mogul legend.
Born April 4, 1932 in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, Clive Jay Davis was raised in a middle-class, blue-collar environment by his parents, Herman and Florence Davis. A dedicated student, he earned full scholarships to New York University, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1953, and Harvard Law School. Davis was admitted to the New York Bar Association in 1957, and joined the firm of Rosenman, Colin, Kaye, Petschek and Freund. One of its clients was the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and Davis would join its subsidiary record label, Columbia Records, as its assistant counsel at the age of 28. A string of impressive legal feats, which included keeping Bob Dylan on the Columbia roster when the artist began to seek another label, cemented Davis' reputation as a savvy lawyer with a keen understanding of artists and popular music. By 1966, he had advanced from the label's general counsel to its vice president and general manager.
At the time, Columbia's fortunes were sagging; the label had avoided signing rock acts in favor of folk and pop performers that, aside from Dylan, had not found a wide audience. Davis sought to rectify the situation through a series of historic signings that made him among the most powerful figures in popular music. After attending the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, he signed the San Francisco outfit Big Brother and the Holding Company after its singer, Janis Joplin, left him riveted by her searing, soulful vocals. He would soon add such '60s powerhouse acts as, Santana; Blood, Sweat and Tears; and the Electric Flag to the Columbia roster, which soon made the label among the industry's most profitable. By 1967, the 35-year-old Davis was president of Columbia Records.
His unerring knack for developing new talent, as well as bringing established acts to Columbia, continued into the 1970s. Among the performers he discovered during this period were Bruce Springsteen, Chicago, Billy Joel, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Aerosmith - the latter of whom paid tribute to him on their song "No Surprise." Davis also brought Pink Floyd into the Columbia fold shortly before the venerable British rock act released its definitive album, Dark Side of the Moon, and successfully courted artists of stature like Paul Simon and Barbra Streisand. Davis' golden touch also extended beyond the pop and rock fields; he co-founded the influential soul label Philadelphia International Records with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, which counted such '70s superstars as the O'Jays and Teddy Pendergrass among its performers. He also signed such jazz giants as Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and helped to direct Miles Davis' career into its ground-breaking '70s period, where the trumpet legend began experimenting with funk and progressive rock. Davis also insisted that country singer Lynn Anderson record the single "Rose Garden," which reached the top of the country charts in 1971 and earned her a Grammy Award.
However, conflict between Davis and other executives at Columbia, which had been brewing for some time, led to his ousting from the company in 1973. Federal investigation of a Davis employee on payola charges led to the discovery of falsified expense reports, including what appeared to be the use of company funds to bankroll a bar mitzvah for Davis' son. Davis was dismissed from his post, though many in the industry noted the disconnect between the label's accusations and its move to make him a consultant for the record division at Columbia Pictures, which underscored Davis' version of the story as a matter of personality conflict.
In 1975, Davis assumed control of the division, which he soon renamed Arista Records. Almost immediately, he began building the company into a leading industry competitor, starting in 1975 with the signing of obscure singer-songwriter Barry Manilow. At the suggestion of Davis, Manilow recorded the ballad "Mandy," which shot to No. 1 on the pop singles charts. Its success gave Davis the clout to court new and veteran acts for his roster, which soon featured punk icons Lou Reed and Patti Smith, rock warhorses The Kinks and The Grateful Dead, soul and pop divas like Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Carly Simon, and up-and-coming talent like Hall & Oates. Few in the business were surprised to see Columbia pay a hefty sum to Davis to secure the rights for his releases to be sold through its lucrative record club.
By 1980, Arista was among the Top Ten most profitable record companies in America. That year, Davis sold Arista to the German conglomerate the Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG) while retaining his title as company president, which allowed him to continue expanding the label's roster of exceptional talent. He was instrumental in developing the career of a young R&B singer named Whitney Houston, who would go on to become his muse, of sorts, and one of the biggest artists of the 1980s and '90s, as well as a record breaker in music sales history. In 1988, he launched Arista Nashville, which counted such country superstars as Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn among its performers, and then forged a lucrative partnership with producers L.A. Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds with LaFace Records the following year. Among its artists were such urban chart-toppers as Usher, TLC, Outkast, and Pink.
In 1993, Davis entered into a deal with producer-artist Sean "P. Diddy" Combs for his label, Bad Boy Records, which generated sales in excess of 12 million albums from such hip-hop and R&B figures as The Notorious B.I.G., Faith Evans, and 112. By 1997, Davis and Arista had netted some $425 million in album sales. Two years later, Davis served as producer on Supernatural, a comeback album for '60s rocker Carlos Santana that sold over 26 million copies before earning an astonishing nine Grammys, including Album of the Year. Despite this extraordinary success, Davis was about to face a corporate decision not unlike his ousting from Columbia nearly three decades prior.
By the new millennium, Arista was responsible for nearly a third of BMG's income, but industry rumors were swirling that the conglomerate was planning to replace Davis with L.A. Reid as label chief. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Davis confirmed the news, adding that BMG had offered him a consulting position with the label or another job with a new-media venture they had created. Davis turned down both offers, which spawned a flurry of support in the media from many of his past and present artists, including Springsteen and Aretha Franklin. In 2000, Davis was replaced by Reid, but was quickly installed as head of a new label, J Records, which was backed by a $150 million investment from BMG and featured nearly all of Arista's senior management among its corporate roster.
Defying age and industry expectation, Davis quickly established J as a major player when it came to discovery of new artists, not unlike his experience with Barry Manilow. Soul singer-songwriter Alicia Keys' debut album, Songs in a Minor (2001), sold over 12 million copies, and was quickly followed by such platinum-selling releases by O-Town, Luther Vandross, Maroon 5, and Busta Rhymes. The industry paid tribute to Davis that same year by inducting him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer, with Patti Smith testifying to his business acumen and vision. He was later honored by the Recording Academy, which presented him with the Grammy Trustees Award. Established artists like Rod Stewart soon became part of the loyal J family.
The instantaneous success of J Records caused BMG to buy a majority stake in the company, and to invite Davis to serve as Chairman and CEO of the RCA Music Group. As Arista was among RCA's holdings, the move returned him to the head of the label that he had once helped to fund. History continued to repeat itself the following year with the merger of BMG and Sony Music, which owned his first employer, CBS Records. He would remain with RCA for the next few years, helping to craft Kelly Clarkson's Grammy-winning Breakaway (2004) album, among others. In 2008, Davis became chief creative officer for Sony BMG, vacating the RCA chairman position, which was filled by Zomba Music's Barry Weiss. That same year, BMG sold its shares to Sony, resulting in Sony Music Entertainment, which responded to the downward turn in the music industry by dissolving both Arista and J Records and sending their artists to RCA. Clive Davis, however, remained untouched, both in terms of position and power. In 2009, he received the President's Merit Award from the Recording Academy.
Just as Davis was orchestrating the musical reunion of singers Brandy and Monica a decade removed their hit single "The Boy is Mine," the mogul was dealt a devastating personal blow when Whitney Houston was found dead in her bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Feb. 11, 2012. The singer was scheduled to attend Davis' famed pre-Grammy Awards party at the very same hotel, but was found submerged in a fourth floor suite just hours before. Cocaine and a heart condition were later determined to have caused her death. Despite the tragedy that had taken place inside the hotel, Davis continued on with his party, where he delivered a speech to the A-list crowd about his love for her and that the family had requested that they carry on in her absence. But some celebrities reacted with shock and distaste that Davis had decided to continue with the bash, even though Houston's body was still in her suite as police investigated the scene. Still, there was no doubt that Davis was devastated by the news and spoke rather movingly of his protégé at her televised funeral in her hometown of Newark, NJ a week after her death.
By Paul Gaita
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Art Department (Special)
Admitted to New York Bar Association; joined firm of Rosenman, Colin, Kaye, Petschek and Freund
Appointed Vice President and General Manager of Columbia Records group
Named president of Columbia Records
Signed Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company as well as artists such as Laura Nyro, Santana, Bruce Springsteen, Chicago, Billy Joel, and Pink Floyd
Assumed record division at Columbia Pictures, which he renamed Arista Records
Signed singer-songwriter Barry Manilow
Sold Arista to German conglomerate Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG), retained title as company president
Signed Whitney Houston to Arista
Released Houston's self-titled debut
Launched Arista Nashville
Teamed up with producer-artist Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs for his label Bad Boy Records
Received Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame
Produced Santana's comeback album Supernatural, which won Grammy for Album of the Year and Best Rock Album; also received Recording Academy's Grammy Trustees Award
Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under Non-Performer category
Appointed head of new label J Records; replaced by Antonio 'L.A.' Reid at Arista
BMG merged with Sony Music Entertainment to form Sony BMG
Named Chief Creative Officer at Sony BMG
Received President¿s Merit Award from Recording Academy
Theater at Grammy Museum named in his honor
Whitney Houston found dead at Beverly Hilton Hotel, hours before his annual pre-Grammy party; also spoke at Houston's funeral in Newark, NJ