As one of the most respected names in music history, Clive Davis has not only seen it all, but discovered and fostered some of the most iconic names in entertainment, from Janis Joplin to Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen to Alicia Keys. Now, on the cusp of turning 90 years old on Apr. 4, Davis finds himself on the cutting edge once again, as the host of the new Paramount+ series Clive Davis: Most Iconic Performances, a miniseries culled from both archive performances and original interviews.
Featuring the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Sean Combs and Springsteen himself, the series’ footage was culled from last year’s virtual installment of his pre-Grammy gala, which shows the executive kibitzing with the biggest names in the industry alongside his favorite performances. Ahead of its Mar. 23 premiere, Davis spoke to Billboard about entering the streaming television world, turning 90, the status of the upcoming Whitney Houston biopic and his view of the evolution of LGBTQ rights during his lifetime.
How did the concept of the series come about?
The idea, frankly, was mine. I had to think about: if anything were to replace my live pre-Grammy gala, what would be unique and special if we did it virtually? So the footage here was what was my pre-Grammy gala for 2021. The only people who were invited were people who would have been invited in person. When we worked on the show, I was just really touched and overwhelmed when I made the requests to the various artists to appear and be interviewed by me.
When it ran, the reaction was really phenomenal, and that’s the only accurate word to describe it. It was so touching. So I thought, where we could get this seen by more people, and for charity? We decided that if there was interest in streaming it worldwide that we would benefit MusiCares, so that’s what we’re doing. Bruce Gilmer [President of Music, Music Talent, Programming & Events for Paramount] was interested immediately, and he took it off the market.
When it comes to the performances featured on the show, it’s not just people you discovered, correct? You cast a wide net here to expand beyond that.
I chose the iconic performances based on my familiarity and interest. There are a number of artists who I have been involved with who are featured in the show, but there are others who are great friends of mine, like Joni Mitchell. But I had nothing to do [with other artists featured on the show] like Queen, Ray Charles or Tina Turner, but they were chosen by me to be among the most iconic performances I have seen. From those gala interviews and archive performances, these are the ones Paramount+ chose to represent the first four episodes, and then we’ll go from there. When it comes to someone like Tina, for example, I knew Oprah was a superfan and has an allegiance to Tina, so I asked her to be interviewed and I’m glad she did.
Is there a common denominator between the array of artists you’ve worked with and helped foster? They’re all so different, but I’m wondering if there’s one similarity you saw in each of them.
When you’re talking about the all-time great performers, the only thing in common is my evaluation of their genius. So whether it’s finding them at their earliest part of their career, like Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel, or whether I felt it was their moment even though they may have not been quite in vogue at the time. I did sign Aretha Franklin after she was already the Queen of Soul, and after she released three albums that did not chart significantly. The same goes with Dionne Warwick, or Carlos Santana. All of their careers should hopefully be an inspiration to musicians about how long a career can last. So along with those artists, like Janis Joplin or Bruce who I signed at the beginning of their career, I am equally as proud of those I have collaborated and joined with and said, “We’re going to reach beyond the heights you already reached.”
The series includes never-before-seen interviews, where you talk to and reminisce with people like Springsteen. There is an interview that comes to mind with Sean Combs where he comes to you with the idea for Bad Boy Records. Do you remember that meeting?
I remember it vividly. You have to remember, Puffy was maybe 21 or 22 at the time. He was not a major figure — he worked at Uptown Records as an executive, but he was certainly not known meaningfully at that time. I remember that Bert Padell had called me and asked if I would meet with him. So I did and I was very, very impressed that he had a singular vision, which was certainly a unique one at that time and was the reason why he was coming to see me. He felt that it was time that hip-hop was accepted by the top 40 and not shunned. We at Arista were so hot with every different kind of artist, that he was making his pitch to finance a label that he’d call Bad Boy. I said, “I have to hear the music and hear what you’re excited about. I gotta hear whether I share the excitement. ”
And that was the thing that impressed him. No other label asked him about the music. He went and played for me “Flava In Your Ear” by Craig Mack, and he played about four cuts from an artist I never heard of called Notorious B.I.G. I was knocked out. Based upon what he played for me and his vision, I agreed to finance Bad Boy.
Looking at the music industry and the Billboard charts from the era in which you began your career, there are not many people from that era who are not only still around, but still kicking and creative. What’s it like for you to see your peers, and the industry, change through the years?
First, I must say, for those who are still around, I’m equally touched that they are coming to my birthday gala. It’s so touching to me to know among the RSVPs are names like Chris Blackwell, Jimmy Iovine, and Terry Ellis, people who I’ve respected for all these years. I don’t think of anything competitively; all I know is that I got into music by accident. I found that I had a passion for it that I never, ever would have known if I didn’t have a few lucky breaks of coming to work for Columbia Records, a client of the law firm I was general counsel of. How does that happen?
The thrill that I’ve had over the years without expecting anything, but just being aware of this gift, has given me so much pleasure that I do it to this day because I love it. I still listen to every song or album that makes the top 20. I love to observe, and to see music changing. But I’m very gratified that the overall perspective at the moment is that music is returning to a rightful place. There was such a serious risk when Napster came out that people would be expecting for music to be free and robbing the creatives, whether artists, writers or producers, of their livelihoods. To see revenues up again, to see music through Spotify, Apple, Amazon and YouTube, reaching much higher levels every year — students at the school that I endowed in my name at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts would ask, “Is this a career worth having?” 10 years ago. But nobody asks that now. Music labels are healthy, and the industry keeps going up. It’s still a wonderful career for those who love it and love music. The overall perspective is very gratifying that music is healthy and reaching more people today than ever.
Speaking of your birthday, you have a party planned in New York for the week after the Grammys. What can you tell us about it?
Well, it’s not going to be like my Grammy party. It’s my birthday party. On the other hand, the RSVP list is more glittering than ever. All I’m saying is, it’s looking to be a memorable night with tremendous, unique things planned. It’ll involve more artists than ever and attended by more artists and people from all walks — not just music, but film, sports, politics. I’m excited by it and it’s all very touching.
The Grammys were supposed to be in Los Angeles on January 31, and then COVID derailed those plans. Now the Recording Academy is planning on having them in Las Vegas on Apr. 3, albeit without your longstanding pre-Grammy celebration. Was it always the plan to skip that and have your birthday in New York instead?
There was always going to be a birthday party, and it was intended and expected that we would do the Grammy party as well. But knowing the kind of parties we’ve had and their reputation, it was just too difficult to expect the same kind of attendance and participation in Las Vegas. If the Grammys were in L.A. this year, we would have probably had it, as the Beverly Hilton was willing to do it. But we had great difficulty in satisfying all the rigid criteria we had, so regretfully we had to take a pause on that.
I’m committed to the Grammys, I hope they have a fabulous show, and obviously I wish my dear friend Joni Mitchell and her MusiCares an evening of memorable enjoyment. But it was never a choice between the two events, it just worked out that way.
Can you give us an update on the Whitney Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance With Somebody? Has filming been completed, and how’s it looking?
It’s going to be Sony’s Christmas release later this year. Almost all of the filming has been done. I’ve been to Boston [where they shot it], I’ve watched the dailies and am very encouraged by what I’ve seen. I’m particularly thrilled, even though it’s a little weird, to see someone playing you. And seeing Stanley Tucci playing me, I have to tell you: he’s not only a remarkable man, he’s a remarkable actor. I’m very gratified by the performance so far that I’ve seen.
What else can you tell us about who plays Whitney?
Whitney is played by Naomi Ackie, a British actress. She’s a very good actress, but the voice is all Whitney, so the role didn’t require picking an actress who sang. In this case, it’s all Whitney’s voice. But Naomi is really a very, very gifted actress.
I know you’ve written about your bisexuality in your 2013 book, The Soundtrack of My Life, but I wanted to ask you about it in light of the recent bills popping up that are widely deemed anti-LGBTQ. The launch of the modern gay rights movement during Stonewall Riots was only 52 years ago. When you look at those changing attitudes from then to now, what has it been like for you to live through them?
Well, the progress that has been made has certainly been very gratifying. That there’s still work to do, that is a fact. There’s so much on that subject that comes to mind. I never had a secret life growing up. It’s not that I had anonymous sex or at all considered intimacy with a male until my second marriage failed — both of them with a woman, and neither of them failed because of any kind of sexual incompatibility. But after I was 50, I decided, as strange as that verb is, I would open myself up to the person, rather than the gender. And so I did enter into an intimate relationship with a male.
But the extent of bisexuality as we move into the future, I think, is going to be found to be so much greater than it is. It’s all totally perfect, and it’s whatever you want to do and whatever describes your sexuality. There’s still so much to do and so far to go, but to see the youth of today often choosing the person rather than the gender, and for more people to understand others with fluidity, openness and non-automatic rejection — the progress that has been made is substantial.
This time last year, we had Lil Nas X singing openly about his sexuality, with a video that reverberated through culture. This was a Black male artist singing openly about his queerness, and it’s a mainstream hit. What did you think about “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and about the general creative evolution of gay music makers?
The answer is so obvious to me. Every time people are accepted for whoever they are, it’s heartwarming and special. So whether you’re a hip-hop or pop artist, these are early first steps. It’s only the beginning. I’m still looking to see that gay or admittedly bisexual leading man get a romantic role in the movies, for example. We still have so far to go, and careers are still so affected. We have so much further to go to understanding and accepting people no matter who they are, whatever they are.