Nobody wants to be the old dude at the kegger. You know the guy I’m talking about. He shows up uninvited, wearing skinny jeans and sporting a depressingly obvious comb-over and saying things like “You got me straight trippin’, boo.” He’s obviously way too old to be partying with college kids, but he doesn’t seem to notice or care. He’s still clinging to an idealized youth that he refuses to believe has passed him by. He just wants to be treated as a peer, and maybe even a hipster. He doesn’t realize that it’s time to give up the posturing, and accept that with age comes a certain inevitable irrelevance.
Clive Davis is not that guy.
Which is kinda weird. Davis certainly seems like he’d qualify for creepy-old-guy-at-the-party status. At 77 years old, he’s one of the oldest working producers and executives in the music business. And yet somehow he’s also one of the coolest. And no, I’m not just saying that because he’s powerful enough to have me killed. The chief creative officer for Sony Music—who has more awards than most people have white blood cells—has been a music guru for roughly as long as there’s been recorded music. During his 40-plus year career, he’s signed artists as diverse as Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, Iggy Pop, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Aerosmith, Sarah McLachlan, Carlos Santana, Billy Joel, The Grateful Dead and Alicia Keys, among dozens of others. While it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume he’s long past his expiration date, he still manages to keep churning out records. He masterminded Whitney Houston’s not-entirely-embarrassing comeback earlier this year, and just last month helmed Harry Connick Jr.’s collection of covers, called Your Songs. Even when he’s surrounded by music professionals at least five decades his junior—as he was at his annual pre-Grammy Awards party last February, with a guest list that included Kanye West, Rihanna, the Jonas Brothers and will.i.am—Davis, with his trademark tinted glasses and Cheshire Cat grin, was still the hippest guy in the room.
I called Davis at his office in New York, which was exactly as intimidating as you’d imagine. It’s difficult not to think that if you just play your cards right, there’s a chance he’ll sign you to a three-album deal. “Old Clive Davis said he’s surely gonna make you a star,” Steven Tyler once sang, “just the way you are.” While Davis wasn’t interested in discussing my imminent pop stardom, he was more than willing to reminisce about his remarkable career, mostly by listing his numerous credits and doing a roll call of his talent roster with the indefinite article. But hey, if the man who discovered “a Whitney Houston, and a Janis Joplin, and a Bruce Springsteen” can’t get a little quirky in his old age, who the hell can?
Eric Spitznagel: You just produced an album of standards with newcomer Harry Connick Jr. What made you decide to take a chance on this kid?
Clive Davis: One of my goals, apart from discovering new artists or looking for new material, is to stand up for great songs, and prove how great songs can really last, whether it’s from the last century into the new century or from present day into the future. So I wanted to do a new album of great material, and I wanted to do it with an artist I’d never worked with before, and who was probably the best young contemporary pop singer in the world. Harry fit that bill, plain and simple.
When you decide to produce a record for somebody, is it like when the Pope makes a decree? They really can’t say no.
Well, I knew this was new territory for Harry. He came in and we had lunch together, and I said to him what I just said to you. And he loved the idea. But he said, “Look, I’ve never collaborated with anybody before. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” And I told him, “I’m not trying to change one thing about you. I think you’re a great singer! I think you’re a great musician!” I think he was greatly relieved when we started discussing who should do the arrangements and I said, “You! You’re a great arranger!”
So you never had to pull out the big guns with Harry?
Guns? What guns?
You have a reputation for being very persuasive. Your first job at Columbia Records during the early 60s was renegotiating Bob Dylan’s contract. You obviously know how to make a musician bend to your will.
No, no, no. There was no persuasion. It has nothing to do with that. It’s about my track record. I think people have respect for achievement. They respect if you’re able to succeed time and time again over enough years. It’s not the gift of gab that makes you survive in this business, because that’s only as good as the deal you’re making that day.
Death Row Records C.E.O. Suge Knight once convinced Vanilla Ice to sign over his royalties by dangling him over a 20th-floor balcony by the ankles. Did you use a similar tactic with Dylan?
(Laughs.) No, not at all. That’s not within the realm of my experience.
Ah, I get you. You’re one of those executives who think an artist can be manipulated without physical violence.
I don’t think “manipulated” is the right word. I don’t manipulate them any more than I persuade them. I have a different relationship with every artist I work with, depending on what they look to me for. For artists who write their own material, like a Bruce Springsteen or a Patti Smith, my job is just to translate it to as large a public as possible. There’s a reason why Patti inducted me into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I have a really healthy respect for artists who do it all on their own. I haven’t had great relationships with an Aretha or a Whitney or a Patti Smith or a Jerry Garcia before he died because I tried to persuade them of anything. It’s because I have a healthy respect for their artistry.
But you took a more active role with Connick. You picked most of the songs for his album, right?
We embarked on this project together. Over a five- or six-month period, we’d meet every Wednesday afternoon for five or six hours and just listen to music, looking for the right songs. I felt it shouldn’t just be old classic songs but also more recent composers, and that’s why we included Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” and Elton John’s “Your Song.”
You’ve got an innate talent for matching up artists with material. Where does that inspiration come from? Is it like when people hallucinate on peyote and they’re visited in a desert by a talking fox spirit guide who gives them all the answers?
(Long pause.) I would say semi.
Semi which part? The talking fox or the peyote?
I don’t remember ever seeing that little fox you’re talking about. (Laughs.) But I do know that when I come up with an idea, it just pops into my head. Where it comes from, I don’t know. But it’s not just about me. It really is a collaboration. When Harry and I were working on this record, we’d pick three songs, and Harry would go back to his home studio in Connecticut and do an initial arrangement, a work demo of each track done with a synthesizer. And then I’d listen to them, or he’d sing the songs live to me, and I would go over the tempos. I might say, “Look, you did it at 96 BPMs. I’d like to hear it at 102 and 108. Let’s see what happens if we speed it up.”
Whenever I think of you in the studio, I imagine it’s something like Phil Hartman’s impression of Frank Sinatra. You’re wearing a tux and sipping on a cocktail and saying something smarmy like “It’s a wrap, baby!” Is that a pretty accurate depiction?
I don’t think that captures me at all. When I’m in the studio, my touch is very light and very supportive. My only job is to create a great creative environment whereby rebels—such as a Garcia, such as a Ray Davies, such as a Springsteen, such as a Dave Grohl—would feel comfortable. If you’re working with an artist like an Alicia Keys, who is more in the R&B pop world but writes her own material, she’s got to be allowed to flower and grow and do what she feels. Your touch is very light but your relationship is warm and solid. They look to you as somebody who understands their creativity and allows it to flourish.
I totally want to hug you right now. You’re like the music industry’s daddy substitute.
When I do get into the creative arena, it’s by coming up with “Smooth” or “Maria Maria” for Carlos Santana, or coming up with the hits that brought Dionne Warwick back into the mainstream, up through “That’s What Friends Are For,” or all the songs that Whitney Houston has ever recorded. In those cases, I’m on the creative front lines. When I’m working with a Whitney or a Warwick, I’m not just the head of a company or creating an environment for self-contained artists. I am very much a part of the creative process. It’s me and the artist. Whether it was Santana doing what he’s doing with Supernatural, or coming up with the Great American Songbook idea for Rod Stewart, or coming up with new material for a Manilow or a Whitney Houston that’s led to a long-term career, you go on the line and look at the results. I’m a part of the creative team.
Are you a closet crooner? Do you sing in the shower when nobody’s listening?
(Laughs.) No. Never. I’ll listen to plenty of music, either on my iPod or CD player. But I prefer listening to those who really can sing.
You won’t belt out a little “I Will Always Love You” just for the hell of it?
Not at all. I listen to music all the time. I’ll bring home new records every weekend, as soon as they hit the charts. I don’t want to get arrogant about my track record. I earn it the hard way, by keeping my ears fresh and making sure that I don’t go over the hill.
There aren’t a lot of guys in their late 70s saying, “Yo, that new Lil Wayne track is dope!”
They don’t hear new music. Or they look for songs that would’ve been a hit 20 years ago that would never be a hit today. To keep fresh, to give advice, to be a fountain of expertise, it requires hard work. You gotta keep your ears to the ground, in every category, whether it’s rock or hip-hop or pop. I listen every weekend to those records that hit the charts.
During last February’s Recording Academy tribute, Bill Maher called you “the greatest enabler of music in our generation.” That’s a curious choice of words. Do you consider yourself an enabler?
(Laughs.) You know, I’ve only ever heard that word used in a different context. But I think he meant it as a compliment.
Is it possible that you’ve enabled artists who maybe shouldn’t have been making music?
Obviously I love to discover talent and help to nurture it. I’ve helped artists who’ve gone on to meaningful careers and it’s been very rewarding. Whether it’s a Patti Smith or an Alicia Keys or a Whitney or whomever, I’ve been a part of their lives and they’ve been a part of my life. That is what I love doing, that has been my joy and my passion. To hear a demo or just somebody playing a new song on the piano, and to be able to say, “I love that song.” And to record it, whether it’s with an Aretha Franklin or a Dionne Warwick or a Barry Manilow or a Whitney Houston, and that song goes on to be sung and recognized all over the world. I get a great deal of fulfillment from that.
Yeah, but that doesn’t really answer my question. Let me put it another way. You know how sometimes you try on a shirt at a fancy clothing store and it looks great in their dressing room, but then you take it home and realize it’s an overpriced piece of shit? Have you ever signed an artist after the excitement of watching them perform live and then the next morning you think, “Oh fuck me, they’re terrible?”
Not so much. I take the signing of an artist very seriously. Obviously I evaluate their talent. There are times when an artist might not grow to the potential that you’d hoped for. If it’s an artist who sings, for example, like a Whitney Houston or a Jennifer Hudson, you don’t think, “Oh, they don’t sing as well as they used to.” No, I don’t think that happens at all. It’s about the development of their creativity. Has their writing talent continued to grow and evolve? If you see somebody when they’re 21 or 25, they’ve spent all those formative years pouring themselves into that first repertoire. And when you sign them, you hope that they’re going to continue to grow over the next two years.
I guess what I’m really trying to ask is, do you owe the nation an apology for Kenny G?
(Long, awkward silence.)
(Nervous laughter.) That was just a joke, obviously.
O.K., uh… let’s talk about Whitney Houston!
You helped stage her latest comeback. Was that her idea or yours?
I called her and said it’s time. She hadn’t recorded in many years, but the mail I get from all over the world, it’s obvious that people miss Whitney. Even as music changed and hip-hop became more dominating, both in the urban and the pop sector, everybody missed her. Whitney didn’t just have hit records, she had songs that stood the test of time. So I called her and said it’s time to get back to work. She said alright, if you’re calling, let’s see what we can do. That’s what happened.
How much of her comeback involved changing the locks so that Bobby Brown couldn’t get back in?
(Laughs.) I won’t even answer that, because you know it is what it is.
You have no opinion about her relationship with Bobby?
I’ve never gotten involved in the personal lives of my artists. Whitney and I have a very close professional relationship. The caring is there. But I don’t get into the personal life. I honestly don’t.
Whitney openly discussed her drug problems with Oprah last month. On a scale of one to ten, with one being pretty darn obvious and ten being “no shit, Sherlock,” how aware were you that Whitney was using drugs?
I think when she decided to do Oprah, we knew it was going to be a very soul-baring interview. I think she was ready. I think she was ready to do exactly what you saw on Oprah.
Did she give you a little advance warning that she was gonna spill the beans?
(Laughs.) We knew that she was going to do it, because we both had to go to Chicago for the show.
Yeah, but did you know that she’d admit to freebasing cocaine?
It wasn’t a surprise. She felt close to Oprah, and as she expressed on the program, if she was going to talk about what occurred and what took place, she felt comfortable sharing that with Oprah.
It’s been said that if you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there. Do you remember the 60s?
I remember it for no other reason than that it changed my life. I never knew that I’d have a career in music, I never knew that I would end up on the creative stage. It was nothing that I was prepared for. Whether it began with being offered the presidency of Columbia Records overnight, or whether it was finding myself at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and signing Janis Joplin and Blood Sweat & Tears, and then seeing these artists become worldwide household names. My life totally changed in the 60s, so I remember it for a whole host of reasons.
So you weren’t the guy at Monterey saying, “Dude, I can taste colors?”
(Laughs.) No, that wasn’t my thing.
And yet you still managed to sign Janis Joplin. How much Southern Comfort did you have to drink before she said yes?
We’re talking about the same Janis Joplin, right?
If I’ve learned anything in life it’s that you need to be true to yourself. In the same way that you want an artist to be true to him or herself. Monterey was a new culture for me. The customs were different. The attitudes were different. The music was different. It was a first time experience for me. When I was with Janis, I never pretended to swig from a bottle of whiskey or go one-on-one with her. A big rule for me is that you don’t try to out-drink your talent.
Because… you’ll lose?
Because they look to you for expertise. My stock-in-trade, what I’ve worked very hard to achieve, is that I’m an expert who can be relied on to create a trusting creative atmosphere. And Janis sensed that.
What are your thoughts on music piracy? The lawsuits clearly didn’t work. What can the industry do at this point?
I think we’ve got to continue being as vigilant as we are. It’s a terrible thing for people to think they can get something for nothing. We’ve got to redouble our efforts. We can’t stop fighting for the rights of our songwriters and artists. We depend on their creativity. They deserve to be rewarded for their efforts.
Can I make a suggestion? You should just start randomly showing up at people’s houses with a baseball bat, screaming, “You want to steal from me, motherfucker? I will make you eat your own balls!” I promise you, I will definitely buy Santana’s new album if it means Clive Davis won’t beat my lower back with an aluminum bat until I pee blood.
(Laughs.) Well you’re very nice. Thank you.
What do you think about the auto-tuner technology that’s so popular with some pop singers lately? Do you consider it cheating?
I don’t think it’s… in what context is it cheating?
It’s using studio tricks to alter a singer’s voice that might otherwise be god-awful.
Well, I’ve never worked with an artist whose voice is god-awful, so I couldn’t say. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to utilize a technology that makes sure the pitch or the tune is perfect. But I’ve never seen it used with any of my artists to substitute for their natural voices.
I have a theory that the music recorded with auto-tuners is being produced exclusively for robots. Have you really listened to this stuff? It’s like easy-listening for C3P0.
I think for a record to be successful, or for an artist to be successful over a period of time, they have to deliver. Not just in the studio, but in a live setting.
But what if this music is triggering some emotional response in robots? What if it’s inspiring them to lash out against their creators?
These artists could have hit records—and maybe they’re doing it with the technology you’re describing, and it’s a hit record disguised by a lesser talent. But then they go on tour and they can’t deliver, and they might have a hit record but they’re not selling albums. To really survive as an artist, you’ve got to be able to do both.
Yes, I understand that. But how do we stop the inevitable robot uprising?
(Long pause.) I guess there should be vigilantes to prevent that from happening.
(Laughs.) Thank you! It’s about time somebody came out and said it.
Seems pretty obvious to me.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com