Songs in A Master

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:

 

She’s

a special girl

With

her own money, job, and credit cards

A

sexy girl

You

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.”

-William Berlind

 

 

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

fight

Gonna see what

them Chase Manhattan boys can do.

 

Now they’re trucking in planters to take

his place

And the co-ops are demanding relief

Gonna be a rumble over the stink that he

makes

And the NYPD’s

Hangin’ on by the skin of its teeth.

 

Everything dies, baby that’s a fact

But maybe

everything that dies someday comes back

Put your white sauce on, fix your pita

pretty

And

meet me tonight in New York City.

 

Well, I got a job and tried to put my

money away

But I

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

drain.

 

Now our luck may have died and our lunch

may be cold

But with you forever I’ll stay

We’re goin’

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

bankers

And don’t get caught on the wrong side of

that line

Well, he’s tired of comin’ out on the

losin’ end

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

pretty

And meet me tonight in New York City.

-Frank DiGiacomo

 

 

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.