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Clive Davis: Pop music's elder statesman

Whitney Houston is just one of the top-rank performers discovered by the "Music Man," Clive Davis. He's been present at the creation of many a career ... and this morning he talks to our Anthony Mason, For The Record:

If the music industry is obsessed with youth, what is Clive Davis still doing here?

In the corner office at the top of the Sony Building high above New York's Madison Avenue, the 79-year-old record executive cranks up his booming speakers and slips into the head-bobbing trance that has been divining hit songs for nearly half a century.

Davis said, despite efforts to kick him upstairs, "I wouldn't go. But I wouldn't have succeeded in not going if the hits didn't keep coming."

The report card (as Davis likes to call it) is impressive. He signed Janis Joplin in the Sixties ... made Barry Manilow a star in the Seventies ... guided Whitney Houston to seven straight #1s in the Eighties ... engineered Santana's comeback in the Nineties ... and discovered Alicia Keys in the new century.

The study in his weekend home is a trophy case, with five Grammys (including as Producer for Album of the Year - one of nine Grammy won by Santana's 1999 album "Supernatural").

"We cleaned up," he said.

In 2000, Davis became the first music executive to be voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

"Patti Smith inducted me," he said. "I'll never forget it."

When a music industry magazine asked readers to name the most influential record executive of all time, Davis received 82 percent of the votes.

"That sounds like a South American election!' Mason laughed.

"Well, that's what they told me, okay - now you'll say I'm bragging!" Davis responded.

No brag, just fact. Clive Davis' influence in the industry is apparent at the party he has thrown every year for 35 years.

Davis spends months planning it and drawing up the guest list. Held the night before the Grammys, it's the hottest invitation in L.A. It's become the record industry's unofficial annual ball.

"You ever get desperate appeals: Please , let me in!?" asked Mason.

"Yes, I do. It's the toughest thing I would say about this."

The crowd at the Beverly Hilton is almost all A-listers - from Katy Perry to Warren Beatty. Davis' date is Jennifer Hudson, whose new album he has just co-produced.

When asked what is the advice he gave her, Hudson replied, "Listening to him! I'm always watching every single step. And anything I can take from him, just the hint of his greatness, I'm satisfied."

The Clive glides onto the floor ... Usher is here ("You told me to be a superstar, so I am!" Ushers said).

So is his old rival David Geffen, and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves. ("My favorite night of the year").

Ask Clive Davis about one of his records ... and he will almost always quote you a sales figure.

Whitney Houston's debut album? "Whitney Houston's debut album sold 20.5 million copies worldwide," he said.

"I did a great 5-record series with Rod Stewart, The Great American Songbook, that sold almost 20 million over 5 volumes."

"I have always been good with numbers," Davis added.

Yet Davis wasn't an avid music fan as a kid, and doesn't know how to play an instrument. His music career he describes an "an accident."

The son of a Brooklyn tie salesman, Davis lost both of his parents suddenly: "My parents died when I was a teenager within a year of each other," he said. "And there was no substitute for hard work. You had to earn it. I earned every scholarship that I had to get me through law school as well as college."

He earned a scholarship to Harvard Law School, and then a job in the legal department at CBS. Within a few years, when a reorganization took place at CBS, Davis was offered the position of head of the musical instrument division, where he was the chief lawyer at the time. "And I couldn't go there because I had a family and I couldn't leave them to go to live in San Diego, where Fender guitars were. Fortunately someone else wanted to do that." So instead he was tapped to be head of Columbia Records.

"This was a challenge. And I poured myself into it. Not to say I had an ear, I never even thought of that, but to learn the record business as well as anybody who had ever been involved with it."

A trip to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 turned him onto rock 'n' roll, and he became the music industry's golden boy.

But then abruptly it ended: He was called up to the CEO's office and fired.

Davis was accused of misusing company funds. Rumors of payola flew. He pleaded guilty to tax evasion, but all other charges were later dropped.

"The pain I can conjure up in a second," Davis said. "Still."

But a year later, he launched a stunning comeback. He took over an ailing label, renamed it Arista, and found a song for a struggling young singer named Barry Manilow. It was called "Brandy," and performed by Scott English.

"This song I felt, if arranged differently, could be a big hit song for Barry," Davis said.

Manilow rearranged it into "Mandy."

"I said, 'There it is, it's a killer,'" Davis said.

Arista's first release went straight to the top of the charts: "It felt great to be back. It felt incredible. And for your first record to go to number one, to be nominated for two Grammys, oh, it was so special."

Davis' greatest success at Arista would come with Whitney Houston, whom he signed at 19, and nurtured into one of the biggest stars of the eighties and nineties. More recently she's struggled with addiction and this year entered rehab:

"Has that been hard for you to see?" asked Mason.

"Yes. It's been hard to see Whitney go through these tough times," Davis said. "Because she was, for all those years, the best singer in the world."

"Did you see that she was heading for trouble?"

Davis said it was mostly hidden from him. "It was not that visible. It was not, until the last few years."

Davis, who released Houston's comeback album in 2009, is intensely loyal to his artists. But Houston's recent performances - even at Davis' own party this year - have been uneven at best:

Davis says today the music business is "different." But as chief creative officer at Sony Music, Davis still relies on his golden gut. On this morning he's auditioning a possible song for British singer Leona Lewis' next record:

"So what do you think of the song?" mason asked.

"I like the song. I want to go over the lyric. It's my first crack at the lyric," he said.

Barry Manilow once said of Davis, "He has the mind of a banker and the heart of a teenager."

For Clive Davis the music hasn't stopped.

"I'll never forget that my parents, when they died, I was left a total of $4,000."

"I'm indebted to a lucky break - an accident - that brought me into music and that has given me a life of incredible fulfillment and pleasure."

And the party isn't over yet.

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