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The Music Industry Titans | CLIVE DAVIS

Hands on, hands off

Joplin, Manilow, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson. Clive Davis still rocks the pop world, knowing when to handpick a song -- and when to step aside.

January 14, 2007|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

After Manilow's '50s collection sold 1 million copies following its release last January, Arista released Manilow's '60s CD in October and it sold 202,000 copies the first week.

Clive Jay Davis is serious when it comes to making hits.

No rules to follow

THE living room of Davis' hotel bungalow looks like a musical laboratory. The first things you see are a shiny Yamaha baby grand piano and a massive battery of sound and video equipment.

They are set up for Davis -- who comes here once a month and stays a week -- so songwriters, from anxious newcomers to veteran hit-weaving wonders like Diane Warren, can play him their latest offerings.

It was in these meetings -- or similar ones at his office in Manhattan -- that Davis first heard such hits as "Since U Been Gone" for Clarkson and "Un-Break My Heart" for Toni Braxton.

If anyone listens now to those and other Davis hits, it's easy to think they too could have "heard" the potential of the songs, but the compositions often go through considerable reworking.

At a Learning Annex lecture a couple of years ago, Davis played some early tapes to show how a song changes during the recording process. The audience "ooh-ed" and "ahh-ed" over some of the moves, which typically include a change of key for the vocalist or a shift of tempo or maybe beefing up the song's verses to better support the chorus.

The lesson of the evening was there are no rules, except to be open-minded.

That helps explain how his roster at Arista, where he ruled for a quarter century, was so wide-ranging -- rapper Notorious B.I.G., legendary rockers the Grateful Dead, punk poetess Patti Smith and the scandal-plagued Milli Vanilli, who, it turned out, didn't actually sing on their records, which were leased to Arista in the U.S. (Davis has said he had no knowledge of the deception).

No wonder the top brass at Bertelsmann Music Group wanted to maintain ties with Davis so badly after he was forced out of Arista in 2000 -- supposedly because he was past the corporate age limit -- that they fired the officials responsible and then gave Davis $150 million to start a new, joint-venture label with them.

It was the largest start-up investment in music business history, and Davis got J off to such a fast start, with Alicia Keys and the "American Idol" association, that BMG further rewarded Davis by buying his 50% ownership of J. The corporation then merged J with its other record labels, including RCA, Arista, LaFace and Jive.

And whom did they ask to run the entire show?

"Well, that was a gratifying year," Davis says in his customary low-key style.

A 'square' outsider

DAVIS' personalized bungalow is also equipped with a fax machine, multiple phone lines, a full beverage supply and a cookie tray for visitors. The only thing that doesn't look like it belongs in the music business is Davis himself.

This suave, extremely gracious figure with the stylish wardrobe and slightly aristocratic aura would be a casting director's dream when it comes to playing the head of a Washington law firm or an ambassador. But you'd never cast him as the chairman of a modern record company -- unless you were planning a satire. In the parlance of the '60s, Davis looks by pop standards like a flat-out square -- and that's how much of the industry long viewed him.

When the Harvard law school graduate, who was brought into Columbia Records in 1960 as a contract lawyer, took over running the label six years later, there was obvious concern. It was in the heart of the rock revolution and Columbia's roster leaned toward adult pop and stage musicals.

Davis didn't picture himself as a talent spotter. He left signings to others. After all, his mentor, former Columbia chief Goddard Lieberson, hadn't signed artists. But that changed in summer 1967 when he went to the Monterey International Pop Music Festival.

"When I pulled into the grounds and saw the crowd, it was visually stunning, the dress and the attitude," Davis recalls, still in awe of the moment. "It was like another culture. Strangers were walking up giving you necklaces."

The music hit equally hard. "When Janis took the stage, it was something you could never forget, watching her vibrate and almost convulse as she sang. "I said, 'Wow, I've got to make a move.' "

Davis was so inspired that weekend that he also signed Laura Nyro, the Electric Flag and Santana. The success of those artists gave him confidence that he had "good ears."

Even though Columbia's market share doubled during Davis' reign, he was still considered by many in the industry to be an outsider. With his Harvard background and refined dress and manner, he looked like a man born with a silver spoon.

In truth, though, Davis was from the streets. The son of working-class parents in Brooklyn, he was shaken in his late teens when his parents died within a year of each other. He moved in with his sister while he attended New York University on a scholarship. After Harvard, he landed a job at a law firm whose clients included Columbia.

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