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Clive Davis Is Still Rolling, Loves Chance The Rapper and Has Something To Prove

Clive Davis, 2017
Dustin Cohen

Clive Davis photographed on Sept. 18, 2017 at Sony Music Entertainment in New York.

The industry legend opens up about his new documentary and current pop trends: "Right now, the big voice is ­missing from music"

Clive Davis does not need to tell his life story. The industry legend already did so four years ago, with his 586-page memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life, which unpacked the many eureka moments of a five-decade career as a hitmaker. “This is not an ego trip,” says the 85-year-old of the new ­documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, which chronicles the path he took to help create some of the biggest records of all time with artists like Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin and Carlos Santana.

Instead, its primary purpose is to further set the record straight -- at least, that’s what Davis, spry and eloquent as ever, suggests while in his ­corner office at Sony Music Entertainment (SME) in downtown Manhattan on a September afternoon. Framed records and photos of superstars cover his walls, but it’s two professional setbacks that nearly stripped him of his many plaques that Davis seems keen on revisiting.

The doc, out Oct. 3 on Apple Music, lingers on two near-falls from grace amid astonishing success. First, when Davis was fired as president of Columbia Records in 1973, on allegations of embezzlement (“Columbia has its own potential Watergate,” declared a Rolling Stone dispatch from that year), from which he was later exonerated, save for one count. Then, years after he founded Arista Records, turning it into a powerhouse, he got removed from the label in 2000 (deemed too expensive by financial backers). Undeterred, Davis subsequently created J Records, discovered Alicia Keys and kept releasing smashes.

“That was probably the most gratifying ­situation of my career,” says Davis of the fact that all 18 fellow Arista executives followed him to J Records upon his dismissal, a testament to his staff’s loyalty. The oustings, however, still haunt Davis, decades later; for all the icons he has discovered and hits ­shepherded, the small-time Brooklyn lawyer of the early 1960s who became known as The Man With the Golden Ear values his reputation above all.

“It’s one thing when you write a book, because people understandably say, ‘That’s just his ­version,’” says Davis, “but it’s different when you hear it from the artists.” The film’s Greek chorus is an eclectic list of stars, including Sean Combs, Patti Smith, Bob Weir and Aretha Franklin, all attesting to Davis’ musical instincts.

Director Chris Perkel, who has worked on docs about Pearl Jam and Johnny Cash, weaves in testimonials (“Deep down, we all wanted to be Clive Davis,” quips Simon Cowell) and Davis’ ­narration with archival footage, some of which Davis didn't know existed. Before work on the movie began, for instance, he was unaware that an unsigned Santana had purposely played poorly at another label’s showcase in 1969, with the intent of later ­partnering with Davis and Columbia. Nor did he know that Art Garfunkel cherished the advice Davis gave to Simon & Garfunkel in 1970 to go with the somber “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as a single over the more radio-friendly “Cecilia.”

Although the film shows Davis navigating the mainstream trajectories of Barry Manilow, Kenny G and the Grateful Dead, it also ­spotlights his rare misses: passing on Meat Loaf prior to Bat Out of Hell, and dismissing a young John Mellencamp as a Springsteen clone. “I once was at a dinner with Springsteen, Mellencamp, Jackson Browne and Don Henley at my table,” says Davis. “I looked at John and said, ‘I got to tell you: In every interview when I’m asked who is the most successful artist that I passed on, I say you.’ And he said, ‘The most important influence in my life at that time was Bruce Springsteen. I had not spent any time ­developing who I was, my true identity or a separate voice, so I’ve got to tell you: You were right!’”

Davis opted to partner with Apple Music -- which has become a music-doc destination in 2017 with films on Harry Styles, HAIM and Bad Boy Records -- due to “their ­boundless enthusiasm and support” for a movie that has been positioned as a prestige project. The doc earned standing ovations at premieres in Los Angeles and London, and will be ­submitted for Oscar contention, which would be a major coup for Apple.

At 85, Davis waves off notions of retirement. As SME’s chief creative officer, he and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds co-produced Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook, a comeback bid released Sept. 29 akin to the ­transformation Davis helped construct for Rod Stewart in 2002. Davis worked with Mathis at Columbia nearly 50 years ago, and knew he still had the range to interpret modern hits like Adele’s “Hello” and Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.”

“He’s still gung-ho about ­everything,” says Mathis, 81, with a laugh. “The hardest part [for us] is the age factor, but we love what we do, taking on brand-new projects and working with different people.”

And Davis still has a nuanced ­perspective on the ­industry. “Over the last several years the most ­exciting artists have come out of hip-hop,” he says. “Urban mainstream [radio] is dominated by that, but we don’t want the next Whitney Houston to be relegated to only adult play.”

The Soundtrack of Our Lives depicts Davis’ professional and personal closeness to Houston, from her teenage days to her death in 2012; five years later, he hopes to honor her legacy by bringing another vocal virtuoso to radio. He’s in the midst of co-producing Jennifer Hudson’s first LP since 2014, and steering the debut album from R&B newcomer Avery Wilson.

“Right now, the big voice is ­missing from music,” says Davis. “There are great voices out there; we’ve just got to get the right material for them. It’s a gradual process, but it’s exciting. They’re not going to play my records because I signed Janis Joplin -- you have to prove yourself every time. But that sure beats the alternative of doing nothing.” 


CLIVE'S CURRENT FAVES

Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco

“He’s incredibly talented, and I thought it was very brave of him to do Kinky Boots on Broadway. I took my two grandchildren to see him, and he brought more life to that part than I had seen before.”

Chance The Rapper

“I saw him perform at Alicia Keys’ [2016 Keep a Child Alive] Black Ball and was knocked out by him. I asked him to play my Grammy party, and he was great.”

Ed Sheeran

“‘Shape of You,’ ‘Castle on the Hill’ -- a number of his songs are striking. I’ve already asked him to perform at my next Grammy party.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of Billboard.


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