At New York University’s Tishman Auditorium on Thursday night, a packed lecture hall greeted Sony Music chief creative officer Clive Davis with a standing ovation at his first public appearance since the Tuesday release of his autobiography, "The Soundtrack of My Life," on Simon & Schuster. The event, a Q&A moderated by Billboard editorial director Bill Werde (@bwerde), which served as both a celebration and a discussion of Davis’ long, influential career. The majority of the audience were college students, though influential music writers Robert Christgau and Anthony DeCurtis (who co-wrote the Davis autobiography), as well as Davis’ son Fred, a longtime music attorney, were also in attendance.
After an opening video montage celebrating Davis' career, Werde wasted no time addressing the most often-heard talking point about the book this week: Davis’ revelation that he is bisexual. Werde raised the point -- which came to light ahead of Davis' appearance on Katie Couric's show Tuesday -- by saying he wanted to start by acknowledging what everyone had been talking about all week: "So I hear you're working with Aretha Franklin again?"
After the room's laughter died down, the two did discuss the issue, with Davis largely sticking to the same things he said on "Katie" and in other interviews during his media tour this week.
"There was no way I was going to write my biography and not talk about who I am," he said when asked why he came forward now. "I do hope that we're not far away from that period where nobody cares about your sexuality," he added to widespread applause.
Werde then guided the discussion through the different phases of Davis' long and storied career, from his beginnings as a lawyer at a small law firm, through his time spent at Columbia, the creation of Arista and J Records, and his current tenure as chief creative officer at Sony Music. Throughout the discussion, Davis perched on the edge of his seat, leaning forward toward the crowd and eagerly telling his stories.
Davis recalled several anecdotes he included in the book, including attending the Monterey Pop festival in 1967 and being knockec out by Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin. "I knew that I was sitting in the midst of a cultural, social and musical revolution," he recalled. "It was spine-tingling... I knew that I had to make my move." He eventually signed Big Brother to a $200,000 recording contract at Columbia.
Davis also discussed the scandal that got him fired from Columbia in 1973 (over allegations that he had used company funds to finance his son's bar mitzvah), describing himself as a "sacrificial lamb" who was cast out of the label. "There's no question that some of that stigma has stayed with me," he admitted.
He guided the careers of Simon and Garfunkel -- relating the story of how he convinced them to allow their songs to beincluded on “The Graduate” soundtrack -- and Barry Manilow, who he said always saw himself more as a composer than a singer. Werde touched on Whitney Houston, the singer probably most synonymous with Davis over the years, who died just over a year ago. "She was magical," he said, before saying that it was "painful" rehashing the circumstances of her death in his book. He also mentioned the distinction between writing a song and singing it, saying "To me, you only write if you can come up with enough standards."
Toward the end the discussion moved to Davis’ legacy, with the hitmaker stressing the discovery of new artists and watching them go around the world, create standards, and become enduring icons as the most fulfilling aspects of his career. In the end, it is that ability to evolve and change with the times that has made Davis himself an enduring icon, inventing and reinventing record labels for the better part of five decades.
"Every five years I had to start a new company," he said. "Every company is different five years later. None stay the same."