Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — In Clive Davis’ handsomely appointed penthouse apartment on Park Avenue, there’s a long windowsill adorned with photos of the music mogul’s family and friends, among the latter such familiar faces as Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, Dionne Warwick and the late Whitney Houston.
Davis, who will turn 81 in April, has “a lot more” pictures at his weekend home in suburban Pound Ridge, he says, and it’s surely not an empty boast. In his more than five decades in the business — first as a lawyer at Columbia Records, then as chief of that fabled company and founder of his own two labels, Arista and J — Davis has helped discover, nurture and revitalize the careers of some of the biggest names in rock, pop, R&B and jazz.
In his new memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life (Simon & Schuster), co-written with Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis, Davis takes readers from his Brooklyn, N.Y., boyhood through his ascent to one of the most high-profile and creatively engaged executives in his field — and also includes, in the final chapter, a highly personal revelation. Setbacks are addressed in detail, from his 1973 firing at Columbia in the midst of a legal scandal to his removal from Arista’s top position in 1999. (He’s now chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment.)
But as Soundtrack makes clear, such reversals did not impede Davis’ ability to play key roles in the progress of icons ranging from Janis Joplin to Miles Davis, Billy Joel to Annie Lennox, Patti Smith to Alicia Keys. Not too shabby for a guy who, as he admits early in the book, wasn’t actually a fan of rock ‘n’ roll. “It just wasn’t for me, any more than Hula Hoops or coonskin Davy Crockett hats were,” he writes.
Then Davis attended the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967 and had what he describes in conversation as “an epiphany. Watching artists like Joplin perform, I felt that tingle down my spine; I experienced the wonders of a cultural and musical revolution.” He grew committed to Joplin and then-fledgling bands such as Santana, Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears — “artists I thought were groundbreaking and cutting-edge. And I found that I had a natural gift” for spotting talent “that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.”
In later decades, of course, Davis would gain even greater renown for his work with pop and R&B divas, none more so than Houston. There’s a chapter dedicated to the superstar (who died last year, on the day of Davis’ pre-Grammy Awards gala) that begins, “Without question, this is the most difficult chapter for me to write.”
When the subject is raised, Davis laments that Houston “didn’t understand the seriousness” of her addiction problems. “She had flashes of understanding. I spent an afternoon with her a few days before she died, and she couldn’t have been more vital. She played me music and promised that she would cut out cigarette smoking — I’d been relentless in telling her to do that. She was full of life, and looking back, it makes you feel so helpless.”
DeCurtis, who conducted more than 100 hours of interviews for the book, was impressed by Davis’ ability to stay grounded through personal and professional ups and downs. “He’s obviously very involved with his artists, but he doesn’t ride on their coattails. He very much has his own life, and that’s one of the reasons he’s lasted so long.”
Davis, who is twice divorced, remains close to his family, which includes three sons, a daughter and six grandchildren, and to friends, with whom he vacations regularly. Soundtrack‘s aforementioned personal revelation acknowledges “something that my children and close friends have always known, but that I knew I would need to discuss in a biography”: He considers himself bisexual.
“After my second marriage failed, I met a man who was also grounded in music. Having only had loving relationships and sexual intimacy with women, I opened myself up to the possibility that I could have that with a male, and found that I could.”
Davis is currently involved with another man (who isn’t in show business), “but I never stopped being attracted to women. Bisexuality is misunderstood; the adage is that you’re either straight or gay or lying, but that’s not my experience. To call me anything other than bisexual would be inaccurate.”
Professionally, at least, Davis has no plans to settle down anytime soon. Among his future plans are an album of “diva standards” with Aretha Franklin, another legend he has championed in the past, and co-producing a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady.
“Listen, I love music,” Davis says with a smile and a shrug. “So as long as my health is good, I’m going to keep doing this.”