Q&A: Clive Davis on Whitney, Aretha and Spat With Kelly Clarkson

Rolling Stone
Clive Davis, Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images For The Recording Academy
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Clive Davis, Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images For The Recording Academy

At 80, Clive Davis, the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, isn't close to his last dance. The longtime record executive – who headed Columbia, Arista and J during his storied career, working with everyone from Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen through Patti Smith, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys – is working on new albums with Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson, as well as mounting a revival of My Fair Lady on Broadway, possibly next year. He's also just published his second, even more expansive memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life (Simon & Schuster), which chronicles his entire career and touches on his creative and personal interactions with what amounts to an entire wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Davis sat down in his Sony office to talk about the making of the book and some of its revelations.

Why write the book now?
You have the opportunity to say, "These are the facts." I never felt beleaguered, but I wanted the accurate story out there. My first book [Clive: Inside the Record Business, 1975] is about a short period of my  professional life. When I did that book, the immediate reaction was one of speculation and suspicion: "Did this lawyer really discover these artists, or is he just claiming credit?" But what I did at Columbia was the blueprint for what I did at Arista. Say what you will about Barry Manilow, but he's playing at the St. James Theatre on Broadway for a month or longer. His songs are now part of the standards that came out of the Seventies and Eighties. Whitney's songs are similarly standards. I could go on and on about the songs on which I've been a creative partner.

In the book, you discuss your bisexuality for the first time. What made you want to detail that part of your life?
My family knew and my closest friends knew. But bisexuality is and was misunderstood: "You're either gay or straight or you're lying." But that's not true. Maybe I should have had the courage earlier to air the issue. But I knew I would air it when I wrote my autobiography. It was a no-brainer.

What do you want readers to take from your chapter on Whitney Houston, which details her struggles as you saw them?
Several things. There's the joy of the discovery of a talent that will last forever. The songs that marked her career that will live forever. The perils of fame. The power of drugs. Reading all the tabloid reports, they never touched on who she was. She was a really good woman, to the core. She listened to music hours every day. There were questions, like, "Did you ever speak to Whitney or give her advice?" So I chose to reveal a few letters I wrote to her.

You say it was the "most difficult" part of the book to write.
It's been a painful period. It still is a painful period. Unless someone sinks to that level that they want to help themselves, nothing will help the situation. I was clear – I said, "Trust me. Look how you've trusted me with songs. Trust me – you will not make it." For a while, I did believe that she stopped drugs when she did the Oprah interview. The hoarseness you hear is from heavy cigarette smoke. I knew she would get her voice back. When she came to my bungalow the very week she died, she said, for the first time, regarding cigarette smoking, "I will not just cut back – the cigarette smoking will end and I will be ready." There was no comprehension on her part or my part that she was flirting with death.

Was is tough to revisit the Milli Vanilli debacle, when they admitted to not singing on their debut album?
No, not difficult. There's the assumption that we knew. If we knew, we wouldn't be offering a million dollars to sign these guys. They did go into the studio and try those vocals. Frank Farian [their producer] was the uber-producer in Germany; Bertelsmann thought he was the cat's meow. It didn't even occur to me to look at credits. But nobody returned the Milli Vanilli records. They loved their hits. "Blame It on the Rain" was one of those guilty pleasures. It was class-action lawyers who benefited economically from that.

How do you look back on the public disagreement you had with Kelly Clarkson over My December, which you felt didn't have enough hit material?
It was one of those cases where the media doesn't understand all the facts. I have great regard for Kelly's talent. She was wonderful on the Grammys this year doing "Natural Woman." But I was right with her from the beginning. I was giving her the hit songs. It's never personal with me. I was saying to Kelly, "I know you don't want to hear this, but I have to do my job."

Kelly Clarkson, Clive Davis Spar Over Recollections in His Memoir

You write about how you missed out on the chance to release Fleetwood Mac's Rumours when, after weighing other offers, they decided to stay with their label, Warner Bros.
I wanted to show how close you can get and not get the music. So those are interesting stories for any follower of pop music. I can't say it's my biggest regret. But it would've been nice, I agree.

You've been known for reviving the careers of longtime acts who'd been in slumps – Aretha, Manilow, Rod Stewart. Who would you pick now?
You know who I'm thinking? Aretha again. She's still singing fabulously. And to have her do an album of divas' greatest hits – songs by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, and moving up to date, to maybe Alicia Keys or Adele songs. To hear Aretha sing these great classics, with hopefully Danger Mouse and Babyface producing – that's a fun project. She's signing her contract next week. 

How have musical artists changed over the last 40 or 50 years?
The acceptance of a commercial objective is easier now. It was tougher then. In the early days, there was a disdain for material possessions. But they were always interested [in selling records]. It was almost a façade, really.

What do you make of the state of pop music now?
I was concerned a year or two ago that radio, in its homogenization, might only play dance records. It was so dominating. But I must say that this year, with Frank Ocean, the Lumineers, Emeli Sandé and Mumford & Sons, there are a lot of artists who are clearly showing individuality and edge. I miss sorely the lack of a new Dylan or Springsteen. I'm concerned about the future of rock, but I'm more hopeful now. And at my annual Grammy party this year, I did open with a DJ, Afrojack. He was fabulous.

So you sold out!
I sold out [laughs]. But I followed him with Patti Smith, which shocked people. I just wanted people to see Patti, Lenny [Kaye] and the group. Patti and I stood on the stage together, and there was a lot of emotion between us.

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