Clive Davis Reflects On Janis Joplin's Big Brother & the Holding Company Going No. 1

ISSUE 21 2019 - NOT OUT YET - OUT ON 9.16.19
Miller Mobley
Clive Davis photographed in 2018.

The visionary executive looks back at his first signing -- Janis Joplin's Big Brother & The Holding Company -- and steering the blues-rockers’ first No. 1 album in 1968.

Today (Sept. 17), Netflix will begin streaming Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, the 2017 documentary about the visionary executive’s five-decade career, during which he founded Arista Records and J Records, and shaped the careers of icons including Santana; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Chicago; Earth, Wind & Fire; Boz Scaggs; Billy Joel; Bruce Springsteen; Aretha Franklin; Aerosmith; Whitney Houston; Alicia Keys; and many more.

In 1967, Davis’ career began in earnest, when he was appointed president of Columbia Records after stints as the label’s general counsel, vp and gm. That year, Davis saw Big Brother & The Holding Company, featuring an unknown Janis Joplin, play the Monterey Pop Festival in California.

Below, Davis recalls steering the blues-rockers’ first No. 1.

 


 

I had never signed anybody before, but watching Janis at Monterey, I had this spine-tingling feeling that I was witnessing a musical, cultural and social revolution. I had nothing to do with causing the revolution whatsoever, but I was fortunate that I was there to act on it, to get an epiphany that would forever change my life and certainly gave me the confidence that this was a world that I could both get comfortable and do well in. At the time, the band was signed to Mainstream Records, but I bought their contract for $200,000. We agreed that half of it would be unrecoupable by Columbia and half would be repaid through the band’s royalties. I also advanced the band $50,000.

When the band came in to do the signing, Janis came to my office privately. She graciously said that the mere signing of a contract in a corporate building was not adequate to represent our linkage. She wanted to commemorate it [by sleeping together]. I told her that it was a great compliment but would not be fitting to complicate our professional relationship.

In this spirit and in these early years of Columbia, I was very conscious of the importance of the Billboard charts.  Not only was it reflective of the success that we were having but when I look back so many of them were associated with hit singles, with copyrights now that I look back have lasted forever.  Obviously Janis and Big Brother and Santana and Chicago, they’re all in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It was a very unique period all compressed within each other.

The Big Brother album, Cheap Thrills, went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 1968 [and stayed there for eight weeks]. It certainly relieves anxiety when the first record you release goes to No. 1 -- you get respect, you create momentum for the artists and the label, and you influence other artists to say, “I want to be with this company.” I have a very healthy respect for failure. I never assume that the next artist will be a hit. You’ve got to prove yourself each time. 

The best universal way to do it is if the music goes straight to number one.  There’s no controversy with that and so I’ve been blessed and treasure and cherish not only the memories of it but the practical influence that it had with the various artists beginning with Joplin and going through Blood, Sweat; Chicago; Santana; [Barry] Manilow; Alicia [Keys] at various times of a career so that we could relax and turn to business and not just worry.  I always say I get paid a lot of money to worry.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 24 issue of Billboard.


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