Since Aretha Franklin left Atlantic Records in 1979, many of her most successful records have been executive-produced by Clive Davis, first as founder/president of Arista Records and more recently in his role as chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment. He offers reflections on a four-decade creative process.
1. The Voice That Got Away
“Aretha did make some great records for Columbia before I led the label [beginning in 1967]. But that was not hit material. There was no personal connection between us then. She went on to explode at Atlantic Records. Each incredible hit that she had with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic was very meaningful because I was aware … Columbia had her [first].”
2. A Partnership Born in the Kitchen
“The first time I met her [was when] she called after I had founded Arista, so we’re talking late 1970s. She was at the end of her career at Atlantic. She was working with producers who didn’t quite have the right handle on the material. I went to her house in Los Angeles, and she cooked dinner for me. We spent the evening getting to know each other and establishing the bond that we have.”
3. Why Her Songs Mattered
“Aretha belongs to all-time hits that still resonate. How important it is, when you have a great talent, to know what kind of material is going to really resound. It’s like having a great actor and you’re so dependent on the script. You can’t just have talent in the abstract.”
4. A Perfectionist in the Studio
“Most artists go into the studio for a week, a month, and some — without naming names — go for months until they get the right performance. Aretha is a perfectionist. She comes fully rehearsed to the studio. She nails it at that same session. She never does more than three takes. She comes [in after] living with the song before she goes in the studio.”
5. ‘One Bright Young Man’
“I was at the BRIT Awards in London and George Michael came up to me and said, ‘There’s an artist you work with who I would love to record with — Aretha Franklin.’ I’m saying privately to myself, ‘This is one bright young man.’ Aretha had never heard of George Michael when I introduced the idea [of their duet on ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)’]. They made the record. It went to the top of the charts all over the world [in 1987]. It just worked out perfectly. It was a win-win for both artists.”
This story originally appeared in the March 25 issue of Billboard.