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The Relentless Hit Man

Arista chief Clive Davis has survived a roller-coaster career to come out on top again. His secret? From Janis Joplin to Whitney Houston, he knows a hit when he hears it.

December 01, 1996|Robert Hilburn and Chuck Philips | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. Chuck Philips is a Times staff writer

Want to talk about great comebacks?

Sinatra . . . Nixon . . . KISS . . . miniskirts . . . the American car industry?

Add Clive Davis.

Who ever imagined that anyone with as many career embarrassments as Clive Davis could reemerge in the '90s as the consensus choice for the title of premier executive in the record industry?

Consider Davis' history:

* Fired from the presidency of Columbia Records in 1973, after being accused of mishandling corporate funds, and subsequently suspended by the New York Bar Assn. over a related tax code violation.

* A reputation for aggressive self-promotion that culminated in a highly publicized 1974 book about his years at Columbia--a book whose jacket sleeve declared that Davis was "universally regarded as the most important figure in the ['60s] revolution in the record industry . . . "

* Released the music of Milli Vanilli, the duo that didn't sing on its own records in 1989 and was forced to give back its best new artist Grammy after the hoax was discovered.

In any other industry (well, any industry other than the anything-goes movie business), someone with this resume might be lucky to still have a job.

Yet Arista Records' Davis--who has been instrumental in the success of artists ranging from Whitney Houston to Barry Manilow to Kenny G--is alive and prospering.

Talk about nine lives.

To Davis, it's not just luck.

"I notice it as a pretty Jewish trait, to be honest with you, whereby you operate as though success will not last . . . that you will not get an A just because you got an A before," Davis says, when asked about his own resilience during one in a series of interview sessions in Los Angeles and New York that stretched over a dozen hours. During the meetings, he was clearly proud of his achievements, but spoke with equal frankness about the rough spots in his past.

"I don't approach anything expecting that it's automatically going to happen to this day."

*

To some, the surprising industry coronation of Davis as pop's premier executive began the day in 1995 when he was rewarded with an unprecedented $50-million contract to keep running Arista Records into the next century. Money talks.

His standing grew in recent months as the rest of the industry began seeing him as more than a one-dimensional executive whose touch was limited to traditional pop. He has moved boldly in the '90s to help launch highly successful labels that specialize in country (Alan Jackson), rap (Outkast) and R&B (Toni Braxton).

Just last year, he added Time Bomb Records, a joint venture with Jim Guerinot, who as manager and record executive worked with such hit underground bands as Offspring, Rancid and Social Distortion.

But the key piece in the puzzle fell in place last year when the industry's most respected figure, Mo Ostin, stepped down at Warner Bros. Records. It was time in pop to declare a new king--and the big-bucks contract and sales figures over at Arista made Davis the obvious candidate.

Davis' peers have always known him to be a shrewd and tenacious competitor, but many in the record industry had tended to underrate his accomplishments over the past three decades.

Remarkably, Davis has reached the top at two different labels--something Ostin is now trying to duplicate as the head of DreamWorks Records.

Davis started Arista from scratch in the mid-'70s after being booted out of Columbia, where he had been instrumental in the careers of such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin and Sly & the Family Stone.

At Arista, he has built one of the most profitable U.S. record operations, generating a whopping $500 million last year in album sales worldwide--10 times the amount that its parent company, the Munich-based Bertelsmann Music Group conglomerate, paid for Arista in 1980. With 10 albums on the Top 100 pop chart this week, Arista accounts for about half of the total global revenue of BMG's music division.

"Clive is a triple threat," Ostin says. "He is not only a superb entrepreneur and executive, he is also an outstanding artist-and-repertoire man. Clive does it all. He is the Michael Jordan of the record business."

Any other contenders for Davis' crown?

Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, was Ostin's chief rival for years but long ago gave up the day-to-day operation of Atlantic to become one of Time Warner's top corporate players.

David Geffen, who built Asylum Records and Geffen Records, was the logical heir to Ostin's throne, but he has moved beyond music to focus on a wider entertainment empire.

Of today's executive crop, the challengers for Davis' executive crown begin with Sony's Tommy Mottola and MCA's Doug Morris, but the gap between them and Davis is wide.

That leaves many in the industry looking to the next generation of label heads for an eventual successor to Davis--primarily Jimmy Iovine.

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