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Clive Davis: “You’ve got to earn it”


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Clive Davis
Short Profile

Name: Clive Jay Davis
DOB: 4 April 1932
Place of birth: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Occupation: Record producer

Mr. Davis, despite an extensive career as a record producer and executive at Columbia Records, do you still feel like you have something to prove in the music industry?

I’ve always felt that you’ve got to work for it. And that continues to this day: you start with a fresh record every time out. I once said to someone, “They don’t play your record because you discovered Joplin. You’ve got to earn it with each time out.” And so over the years, I think that that pretty much has been a mantra.

Would you say that mantra has been the secret to your success?

I would say that a strong work ethic was also a vital ingredient. That’s something I was born with, I’m convinced of it; it was nothing that I acquired. If you take on anything, you try to do it your best. It also helps if you’re a worrier — and I’m a good worrier. You try to worry about what don’t you have and what you need to have in order to make it happen or succeed. In that respect, I never took anything for granted, so when I gradually learned that I had ears, it definitely was a major defining moment of my life.

“Here I was in the midst of a social musical and cultural revolution... You’re just dazzled by it.”

When did you first come to that realization that you had an ear for music?

When I saw Janis Joplin and Big Brother perform at the Monterey Music Festival in 1967. Monterey will always be the epiphany moment for me because although I was head of the company, I had no idea that I had ears, whether it be for artist discovery or songs — it never occurred to me that I might have it. And here I was in the midst of a social musical and cultural revolution and you’re just dazzled by it. I was just blown away by this band.

So you signed them…

And so I signed them! In the months thereafter I signed Blood, Sweat & Tears, and built my roster at Columbia quietly until I launched it in a really important way. Watching Janis that day, I realized that I’ve got to move on my instinct, my intuition. Every artist that I’ve signed since has had an impact.

How do you know which artists will have an impact? Is there a quality they all possess — maybe, like in the case of Janis Joplin or Whitney Houston, a certain vulnerability?

It’s different for every artist. With Whitney, I was there at her discovery and she just had a natural gift. When I auditioned her in the early 1980s, I heard her sing “Greatest Love of All” for the first time… She found more meaning in that song than I ever dreamt was there. So, is vulnerability a part of Whitney’s arsenal? Yes. But it’s so much more than any one quality. It’s a combination of all: the range of voice, the power of voice, the dynamic of the voice… To emphasize only vulnerability is not to do justice to the elements of what makes an artist great or original.

Whitney Houston performing her 1986 hit single 'Greatest Love of All.'

What does it all come down to then?

There are all different kinds of artists… With vocalists, I gravitate towards natural, electrifying talent. Annie Lennox could do more with a raised eyebrow than most people could do with their whole body. Aretha Franklin is a natural wonder with her voice. Dionne Warwick could not only float through a Burt Bacharach lyric but she could bring it to life like no one else in history… And like I said, Whitney finds more meaning in songs than anyone I know. But when you’re appraising a singer-songwriter like Bruce Springsteen or Patti Smith, you’re looking for the ability not only to write but to pierce.

Does finding a hit also come down to intuition or is there a certain alchemy to it?

The alchemy of a hit record would be the combination, imperatively, of music with a chorus that lingers. Lyrics are very important, they affect your mind, your body, your soul. And when you have a classic is when you have that wonderful combination of music and lyrics that you can’t get out of your head, and you find yourself in the shower the next day singing, wondering where did I even hear this?

Does that still happen to you these days?

It’s tough today. I’m excited by a lot of the developments, but there is certainly a risk for the over emphasis on EDM and dance and tempo on the hit record as compared to the distinctive artist that stands out from the crowd. You wonder where the new Dylan, where the new Springsteen is coming from, where the new Aretha Franklin is coming from. When you do have somebody who is unique and defies trends, like Adele, for example… She stands out; people will not be satisfied to just have the single, they want the whole album.

“No matter what revolution is occurring in technology, it has to understand that music will not be obsoleted.”

In today’s fast-paced music climate, it seems like it’s become more difficult to generate and retain interest in an entire album.

You’re right that it’s different today. Back in the early 2000s after I’d left Columbia to start my own venture, Arista Records, I came up with the idea for a pre-Grammys party to celebrate our artists. So, the year that Santana’s Supernatural came out… I’d been friends with Carlos Santana for a good 20 years, but he hadn’t been on the radio since the days of “Evil Ways” and “Black Magic Woman.” I used the Grammy party to have him sing and play “Smooth” with Rob Thomas, and “Maria, Maria” with Wyclef and Product G&B. It was electrifying! It created the aura for his album Supernatural to become what it is now, maybe the twelfth best selling album in history.

The Grammys party certainly played a role in the success of many of your artists.

Well, all you can really do for an artist is create an opportunity to be seen by tastemakers. But if they don’t have the goods to back it up, it just becomes another social function. The value of the music shouldn’t be undermined.

Why do you think that music is so valuable?

Music is a necessary ingredient in people’s lives. No matter what revolution is occurring in technology, it has to understand that music will not be obsoleted. People need music, and they’ve needed it for many years in many different ways; whether you go back to church traditions or other traditions in life, whether it’s pop or soul or rock or jazz… It’s a very, very natural basic ingredient that’s essential to the full enjoyment of life.