Clive Davis leaned back in a leather chair in the study of his
Pound Ridge, N.Y., estate. The 68-year-old, Brooklyn-born record executive, who
has launched the careers of everyone from Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys, was
explaining what makes a hit.
“First of all, it’s got to be a great hook,” Mr. Davis said. His
thinning red hair, as always, was neatly combed back, and there was a whiff of
salesmanship in his voice. “It’s got to have a great melodic hook, and usually
there has to be a lyric. Not always .
But usually .”
Mr. Davis dug behind his desk and pulled out a CD from O-Town, a
group of pretty-faced young men from Orlando, Fla., signed to Mr. Davis’ label,
J Records. He wanted to play a cut on the album penned by the songwriter Diane
Warren-”It’s beautiful,” he said-but the CD player was on the fritz and
couldn’t play the song. He settled instead for a song called “Girl.” Mr. Davis
cued the disc, and a thumping blast poured from the stereo, followed by a
harmony of voices:
a special girl
her own money, job, and credit cards
better be careful or she’ll pull your card.
Mr. Davis leaned back again in his seat and, with his foot,
tapped out a rhythm that didn’t seem connected to the song. His brown dog,
Sammy, watched him tap away.
“I would say that this is my
favorite cut,” Mr. Davis said, his voice barely audible.
This is what Clive Davis did all day: He listened, and he sold.
Trained as a lawyer, he didn’t play an instrument or write songs. But he could
always spot talent and market it, often better than anyone else. Over the
course of his career-first with Columbia, most of it with Arista Records, now
with J-Mr. Davis has helped drive the public’s tastes toward the music of,
among others, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, the Doobie Brothers, Earth, Wind
& Fire, and Whitney Houston. He got teenagers in two different
generations-20 years apart-hooked on Carlos Santana.
What Mr. Davis did not show was a predisposition for a musical
genre. Though his stock in trade was radio-ready pop, there is no specific
Clive Davis “sound.” Mr. Davis likes hits, plain and simple; he doesn’t care if
they are rock, R&B, hip-hop, trip-hop, metal, nu-metal or pots banged on
pans. Mr. Davis likes selling records, and he likes artists who can sell them.
“My basic approach has not changed,” he said after the O-Town
song had ended. “What I look for in signing an artist is a headliner. It’s
someone who can have a long-lasting career, someone who can headline at Radio
City Music Hall, no matter what their talent level in music.”
It was a funny statement, one that sounded a little old-fashioned
and showbizzy, and it made Mr. Davis’ rather triumphant year seem all the more
unlikely and impressive. After a difficult parting with Arista-he was
reportedly pushed from his job as president by Bertelsmann, Arista’s parent-Mr.
Davis is enjoying one of the finest seasons in his career. The jewel of his
comeback is Alicia Keys, a 21-year-old sensation whose debut album, Songs in A Minor , has sold seven million
copies. (A hit single from the album, “Falling,” has also been nominated as
Song and Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 27.)
Ms. Keys, a piano player from Manhattan, benefited from every
move in the Clive Davis playbook. For all the rhapsodizing about her prodigious
talent-and Mr. Davis’ own testimony to same-her rise is equally a tribute to a
brilliantly executed marketing strategy. By cautiously managing Ms. Keys’
appearances; by touting her as a musically proficient antidote to manufactured
pop bands; and by playing upon the record industry’s (and the media’s) thirst
to anoint the next big thing, Mr. Davis made his young charge a phenomenon
before the public heard a note from Songs
in A Minor .
More than anything, the selling of Ms. Keys hinged upon building
manufactured word-of-mouth; instead of pitching her to radio stations, Mr.
Davis arranged for Ms. Keys to perform in intimate settings in front of
carefully selected crowds of influential people. She played the piano at his
Manhattan apartment for radio and record executives; she played when Mr. Davis
was asked to deliver the keynote address at last year’s Billboard magazine convention; she played at his famous Grammy
party in 2001, before everyone from Wyclef Jean to Stevie Wonder. That last
performance also led to a booking on The
Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Oprah Winfrey was next. “I wrote to Oprah and asked her to view
the video, and asked her if she would consider doing a new show on new strong
women in music,” Mr. Davis said. Ms. Keys appeared on a subsequent show with
R&B veterans Jill Scott and India. Arie. A few weeks later, Songs in A Minor entered the Billboard
charts-at No. 1.
Still, Mr. Davis disagreed that Ms. Keys’ success was the
byproduct of some kind of brilliant hype. “You can only do this with an artist
who will dazzle,” he said. “You can’t hype this kind of thing.”
As for his split with Arista, Mr. Davis disputed reports that
he’d been pushed by Bertelsmann, saying the separation was amicable. He also
rejected speculation that J Records was some kind of mega-settlement between
the two parties, designed to allow Mr. Davis to leave and save face.
“In the motion-picture industry, when you want to end a
relationship with somebody, it has become customary to offer them an outside
production deal-$1 million, maybe $2 million,” Mr. Davis said. “They gave me a
$150 million deal. That’s not face-saving.”
Mr. Davis wanted to make it clear that he’d moved on. He began
talking about Soiled, a new nu-metal outfit, and Shannon Curfman, a 16-year-old
female guitar prodigy. “Oh, she’s killer,” Mr. Davis said. Did she remind him
of anyone? “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to make a comparison.”
Mr. Davis shook his head, as if the mere thought of Ms. Curfman’s
talent was too much to bear. Sammy the dog got up from the brown couch and
sniffed at her master’s brown loafers.
“I love it,” Clive Davis said, petting the dog. “I love it all.”
Ode To The Chicken Man
(To the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”)
Well, they kicked the chicken man off his
corner last night
Now they booted his cart, too
Up on Madison they’re gettin’ ready for a
Gonna see what
them Chase Manhattan boys can do.
Now they’re trucking in planters to take
And the co-ops are demanding relief
Gonna be a rumble over the stink that he
And the NYPD’s
Hangin’ on by the skin of its teeth.
Everything dies, baby that’s a fact
everything that dies someday comes back
Put your white sauce on, fix your pita
meet me tonight in New York City.
Well, I got a job and tried to put my
got debts that no honest man can pay
So I can’t afford Hale & Hearty or
the Daily Pain
And Mitchel London’s prices are a helluva
Now our luck may have died and our lunch
may be cold
But with you forever I’ll stay
out where the Sabrett stands are turnin’ to gold
So pack up your fixin’s, baby, ’cause the
ketchup’s getting old.
Now he’s been lookin’ for a corner but
it’s hard to find
Down here it’s just socialites and
And don’t get caught on the wrong side of
Well, he’s tired of comin’ out on the
So honey, last night he met a reporter
who’s gonna do a little favor for him.
Everything dies, baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies
someday comes back
Put your white sauce on, fix your pita
And meet me tonight in New York City.
A Cherry On Top
The photo caption in the Feb. 25 New York World should have noted
that the actor Alan Bates is starring in a new film adaptation of Anton
Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.