The Golden Ears Of Clive Davis

<B>Mike Wallace</B> Talks To Storied Music Executive

What do Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Carlos Santana and Alicia Keys have in common?

Clive Davis, the man with the "golden ears," who helped guide them all to the musical summit. And he's not done yet.

When 60 Minutes first broadcast this story back in February, this unstoppable record man had more than a handful of his current artists up for a Grammy Award.

No one, including himself, would have predicted that Davis, who started out as a square, unmusical graduate of Harvard Law School, would wind up as a legendary hitmaker. Correspondent Mike Wallace reports.
"I knew nothing about records. It was the furthest thing from my mind. I did not have a background in music, period," says Davis.

At the age of 71, Davis remains a hands-on record executive who cultivates new talent, produces new records and creates big hits over and over again. His track record spans nearly four decades of music, from hippies to hip-hop.

It began back in the '60s, when Davis was a lawyer in the music department at CBS. Within just a few years, he had risen to become the head of CBS Records.

Among the big names at CBS in those days were old established ones: Mitch Miller, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett. But in the summer of '67, Davis took a trip to California where he heard an unknown artist performing at the Monterey Pop Festival.

"I went to Monterey Pop. I just went down in the fairgrounds and nobody in that area, just south of San Francisco, was dressed like me. I was in the midst of robes and flowers and every kind of outfit. I was stunned by it," says Davis, laughing.

"The music began, and it was one of those life-changing moments. I saw an artist, Janis Joplin. She was exhilarating. She was vibrating. And she was like no other artist that I had ever seen before ... It struck me that hard. Maybe the word is epiphany, when you get that special sensation. And I was transfixed ... I knew what I had experienced at this first-ever pop festival, was going to be the sound heard around the world."

Davis signed Janis Joplin and her band to CBS Records and he says that at that contract signing, Joplin made him a surprising offer.

"It was very corporate for her. And we were signing papers. And she asked to see me alone in my office. And she said, 'This is the biggest moment in my life. You are signing. I'm signing with my group. It just seems too formal. We've gotta loosen up. Let's go to bed together,'" recalls Davis.

"Well, I didn't. It didn't go as to 'Let's pick the place.' We didn't get into a -- detailed discussion. I smiled and said, 'That's very special.'"

And was it? "There was no physical intimacy," says Davis.

With Janis Joplin, Davis' rocket ship ride at CBS took off with more legendary artists, including Santana, Sly & The Family Stone and Bruce Springsteen. Soon, this lawyer-turned-music man quickly became one of the most powerful men in the business.
But then, all of a sudden, it came to an end. Davis was abruptly fired in 1973. CBS claimed that Davis misappropriated money to renovate his apartment and to pay for his son's Bar Mitzvah.

"Both of which turned out later to be false," says Davis. "I knew it was false."

But despite his denials, questions about Davis persisted for some time. It was a very dark period in his career.

"There were certainly wounds that can never be patched over. And, you know, you get tested in life," says Davis. "But I find that over life, it's a very good example that you really cannot just expect life to go up, up, up."

His resurrection began when he was made president of another label that he named Arista. And he created a powerhouse with it: The Grateful Dead, Annie Lennox, Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin, Kenny G. and Whitney Houston.

Davis first heard Houston sing when she was a teenager and he took her on "The Merv Griffin Show." The rest, of course, is music history.

People talk about Davis' golden ears. But he says it's his gut that helps him decide whether to sign an artist.

"It's your gut. It's the tingle up your spine. It's your ears. Whatever the anatomy part that it is, I found that it is a natural gift," says Davis.

And it was his gut again in 1997 when he agreed to meet with Carlos Santana, whose glory days seemed long past.

"He wanted to see, 'What is this man about? What does Carlos Santana want to do,'" recalls Santana. "That's when I said, 'I would like to...I can't help myself, you know. I said I want to reconnect the molecules with the light, man, you know.'"

Davis says he had just one important question for Carlos: "I said, 'Let me ask you. Are you hungry?' And he said, 'I have two teenager daughters, and they wanna hear me on the radio.'"

The result? An album that sold over 25 million copies worldwide and won Santana eight Grammys -- including one for Clive Davis. The year was 2000, Arista's 25th Anniversary, and it was a banner year for Arista and Davis.
But Davis' career was about to take another detour. After 25 years. Davis' contract was up, and BMG, Arista's parent company, had decided the time had come to replace him with a younger executive.

"The fact of the matter is that I knew I was not too old," says Davis, laughing. "I think that they felt that they could run the company, and were eager to run the company themselves."

Negotiations followed and BMG finally agreed to finance a new venture with Clive J. Davis - J Records. And he soon proved that, indeed, he was not too old. Within just a year, J Records had four albums in the Top Ten, including Alicia Keys, one for his latest young sensation.

Keys remembers her all-important first meeting with Davis.

"It doesn't feel like yesterday, but it does feel like yesterday. And I remember he said to me, 'So, what do you wanna do? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? Where do you wanna be?' And I had never had somebody of his stature ask me those questions," says Keys.

"Nobody ever cared. They could care less. They wanna tell you what they want you to do. And when he asked me that, I knew that it was different than anything else."

And it was. Her debut album sold 10 million copies and won her five Grammys. Her second album recently debuted at No. 1 on the charts.

Then came a different challenge from the aging rock star Rod Stewart. He said his last album, for another label, had been a "horrible failure." Now, he wanted to sing popular romantic songs from time gone by, and he was able to sell that notion to Davis.

"I've got to tell you, it was a huge risk," says Stewart. "For both of us. If it would have dribbled in and sold 30,000 albums, we both would have been the laughing stock. He could have moved on. It would have crippled me, I think."

During a recent meeting at J Records, Rod Stewart surprised the staff -- and Davis surprised him with some astonishing sales figures for his latest album.

"The story of Rod Stewart, the story of Carlos Santana is so inspiring to young musicians because it shows in this trendy business how long a career can last," says Davis. "It shows how you can soar back, regardless of age."
Of course, the same could be said for Davis, a workaholic who still spends late nights at the concert hall -- and long days at the office. He works with a staff, many of whom are less than half his age.

"It never occurs to me that I'm any older than any of them. What we share, because we travel together, we spend an awful lot of time together, is, a passion for music," says Davis.

Obviously, that passion has served him well. This winter, it was announced that Davis had been named Chairman and CEO of BMG, North America, which puts him back in charge of, among other things, his baby, Arista, which was taken away from him a couple of years back.

"The only reason that I'm still in it is because the hits keep coming. In business terms, you've gotta have hits," says Davis. "You've gotta show what have you done lately. So, I never take anything for granted."

  • Rebecca Leung

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