5 Fascinating Facts About Record Producer and Executive Clive Davis

The ability to hear a song and know it will resonate with the masses is a rare thing. The pairing of the perfect song with the right artist is an art form in itself. Clive Davis has consistently done both. He started out in the field of law with a degree from Harvard University, but then discovered he had a knack for connecting with musicians and forged lifelong relationships with icons and legends. As the founder and president of multiple record labels, Davis repeatedly found success with new artists as well as resurrecting careers others thought to be over. Let’s take a look at five fascinating facts about Clive Davis.

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He Began His Career as a Lawyer

Davis was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and was a member of the honor society at Erasmus Hall High School. He attended NYU and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in political science. He received a full scholarship to Harvard Law School and landed a job at Rosenman, Colin, Kaye, Petscheck, and Freund. One of their clients was CBS.

In the 2017 documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, the mogul said, “I was working at one of the top law firms in the city. Until one day, I get a call from one of my clients, the chief attorney for Columbia Records, and he said, ‘We have a two-man legal department. I’m not happy with my No. 2 man. Within six months to a year, the No. 2 man will be the chief lawyer for Columbia Records. That’s what I offer you.’ I knew nothing about music.”

He Was Put in Charge of Columbia Records at 33

Five years later, Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson asked Davis to leave law and become the head of the musical instruments division. Fender Guitars, Leslie Speakers, and Steinway Pianos would be under his reign. Davis thought about it overnight and decided to turn down the offer. The next morning, Lieberson called Davis to tell him there had been a change in plans. Norman Adler wanted to move to La Jolla, California, The head of musical instruments went to him. Lieberson offered Davis the opportunity to head Columbia Records.

Columbia concentrated on classical and show tunes. They were not interested in rock ‘n’ roll. Mitch Miller was the head of A&R and viewed rock as a passing fad. Record producer Lou Adler asked him to go to the Monterey Pop Festival, where he watched Big Brother and the Holding Company. It was there that Davis had an epiphany. This was more than a cultural revolution. It was a musical revolution. He signed lead singer Janis Joplin that night. He soon signed The Electric Flag, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, and Santana.

When Simon & Garfunkel finished their latest album, they didn’t know what the single would be. Davis picked “Bridge Over Troubled Water” even though it was softer than much of what was popular on the radio at the time. Even the singers didn’t believe it was the right decision until they saw the results. When Bruce Springsteen handed in his first album, Davis didn’t hear a single. The singer went down to the beach and wrote “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night.” 

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith once said, “Clive Davis took me aside, put his arm around me, and said, ‘You’re gonna be a big star, and we’re gonna sign you up, and you’re gonna have lots of money, and your career is gonna explode.”

In 1971, Davis signed an agreement with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff for exclusive distribution of their Philadelphia International label. This opened up the world of R&B to Davis. The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass, and Billy Paul led to Davis signing Earth, Wind & Fire. He continued with Pink Floyd, Neil Diamond, Laura Nyro, Loggins & Messina, and Boz Scaggs. Columbia Records was dominating the market. They had a strong roster representing rock, jazz, country, and R&B.

He Was Fired by Columbia Records in 1973

At the height of all of his success, it all came crashing down. A scandal erupted over fraudulent business expenses and payola. Columbia launched an investigation and it was headline-grabbing drama as Davis was fired. After three years, a judge found that while there was fraud committed, Davis was not involved with the majority of the issues. He pleaded guilty to a much lesser charge and was exonerated.

Columbia Pictures CEO Alan Hirschfield enlisted Davis to be a consultant for the Columbia Pictures’ record and music operations department. They appointed Davis president of Bell Records, then a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures Industries. He then started a new record label in partnership with Columbia Pictures called Arista Records, named after the honor society of which Davis was a part of at Erasmus High School in New York City. Melissa Manchester and Barry Manilow were the anchor artists. Manilow’s “Mandy” went straight to No. 1, followed by a Gold album by Manchester. Alan Parsons, The Bay City Rollers, The Kinks, The Grateful Dead, and Lou Reed were all added to the roster. 

He Founded Arista Records in 1974

Using Columbia Records as a model, Davis wanted Arista to be in every area of music. Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Patti Smith, and a Saturday Night Live comedy album represented the sound of the street.  After the success of pairing songs with Manilow, Davis wanted to resurrect the career of Dionne Warwick. This led to the signing of Aretha Franklin and a newcomer named Whitney Houston.  He began searching for just the right songs for her. The result was a debut album (Whitney Houston) that sold 22 million units and crossed over into almost every radio format. Meanwhile, “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead hit the Top 10, and “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker Jr. was a smash. In 1989, Davis co-founded Arista Nashville with Tim Dubois, which had success with Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and Brad Paisley.

He’s a Grammy Trustees Award Winner and a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

When he left Arista Records, Davis started a new label with financial backing from Bertelsmann Music Group (Arista’s parent company). In 2004, BMG merged with Sony Music Entertainment. Davis was appointed chief creative officer of Sony BMG.

In his long career, Davis won four Grammy Awards, the 2000 Grammy Trustees Award, the 2009 Grammy President’s Merit Award, and in 2011, the theater at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles was named the Clive Davis Theater.

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Photo by Frederick M. Brown/GettyImages

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