The Soundtrack of My Life
published: 25 /
In 'Raging Pages' Lisa Torem reflects upon 'The Soundtrack of my Life', the autobiography of pioneering record label boss, Clive Davis
'The Soundtrack of My Life' by Clive Davis with Anthony DeCurtis was published in the U.S. in 2012, but because Davis is such an essential figure in the pop music world and his story is unique, I have taken the liberties to include this memoir in the August edition of 'Raging Pages'.
Clive Davis is the CEO of Sony Music Entertainment. His six-time Grammy wins include the coveted Trustees Lifetime Achievement Award, and he has played a strong role in the careers of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Carlos Santana, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Patti Smith and the Grateful Dead.
Anthony DeCurtis has been a contributing editor at 'Rolling Stone' magazine for thirty-plus years. He also holds a Grammy for the Best Albums Notes category. A prolific author and professor, he is also credited for co-editing the 'Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll'.
In 'Introduction: Welcome to the Party', we already begin to see how the Clive Davis mind operates. In this chapter, he talks about the art of seating celebrities at his annual pre-Grammy party, which he started hosting in 1976
“If people see the same folks that they see at every other music event we’ve failed. Someone like Al Gore wouldn’t be seated among politicos, but artists and executives who admire his brand of activism. Someone like Paul McCartney might be placed alongside acclaimed young R & B or hip-hop artists.”
After a lifetime of leading artists through important career decisions, it makes sense that Davis has acquired such acute sensitivity, but he wasn’t initially headed towards a unique career path, running Columbia Records in 1965. A Harvard grad, he began his career as an attorney.
Born in Brooklyn, Davis was one of two children. Money was tight, but the community was strong. His ancestors were Russian-Jewish immigrants. School was a haven. “I fell in love with learning and became a straight-A student,” he recalls. His mother, an important influence, knew that her son enjoyed reading but she also yearned to see him appreciate the physical and social world around him. “Common sense and people skills are equally important,” she reminded him. Her early death at forty-seven left him numb and aimless and, when his father had his first heart attack only three months later, he moved in with his sister Seena. He was still a teenager. Tragically, his father would suffer a second heart attack eleven months after his mother’s death. “Losing them so close together at such a young age was like a violent entry into adulthood,” he writes.
But he worked hard during his undergraduate days at NYU, always maintaining leadership positions: president of his freshman class; president of student council. Although he then secured a scholarship at Harvard, he experienced anxiety. “If I didn’t make the grade, I was out.” He was beset by actual anxiety attacks and a foreboding sense of loneliness, but idleness was simply out of the question. Clive Davis had an exemplary work ethic.
In some ways, he found law boring, but when a copyright course “required us to subscribe to 'Variety', the bible of the entertainment business,” he began to appreciate the lively jargon that industry used. Although he did not know that that industry would become his bread and butter, he was getting hooked.
In 1960, chief lawyer of Columbia Records, Harvey Schein offered Davis an opportunity to become chief counsel at Columbia Records. “Unfortunately, I knew nothing about music to speak of, not that it was a requirement of the job.”
Raised on Broadway musicals, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, Davis cared little about rock and pop music. “That music was for kids, and I was a grown-up with grown-up things on my mind.” Of course, in due time, he would do a regal about face.
In those early days, Davis had to learn to navigate controversial issues sensitively and expeditiously. When Columbia Records feared a libel suit, they brought in Clive Davis to examine the Bob Dylan album “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues”, a record on which some of the lyrics were considered to be contentious. It would be the second time Davis and Dylan had quibbled. Dylan accused Davis of trying to censor his lyrics. The situation shoved liberal-minded Davis into a tough spot, but it also threw him headfirst into the world of celebrity. It was not a stretch that within five years Clive Davis would became top dog at Columbia Records.
He would enact dynamic changes in the industry and anticipate trends. He worked enthusiastically with Donovan, for example, noting that the Scottish singer-songwriter offered to pitch in for costs after offering to add his visual design to recordings. By utilizing his business and legal background, he became a financial genie and by incorporating his mother’s wishes he avoided scholastic tunnel vision and reached out open-heartedly to his client base. Through negotiation tactics, he incorporated the phenomenon of “variable pricing” on greatest hits packages.
At Lou Adler’s insistence, Davis attends the Monterey Pop Festival, where he witnessed Janis Joplin’s awe-inspiring performance, “This has got to be my moment, I thought. I’ve got to sign this band.” Now Davis was inching out of his comfort zone—actually signing acts, actually banking on their success, knowing that a wrong judgment could trigger a financial nightmare. With creative juices overflowing, he also had his mind set on the Electric Flag.
Davis listened intently to John Hammond when he brought Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen over to Columbia and signed Laura Nyro, despite her “underwhelming” set at Monterey. He just knew that there was something “special” about her, although he would sometimes find her requests quirky. “She wanted 'Eli and the Thirteenth Confession’ to smell a certain way, so I arranged for a perfumed lyric folder to be enclosed in it.”
Throughout his career, Davis challenges his own convictions. Here he talks about the popular brass band, Blood, Sweat and Tears and how their choice of moniker kicked to the can his moral compass. “As a Churchill admirer, I was well aware that he had popularized the phrase “blood, toil, tears and sweat” in a dramatic 1940 speech, and I wondered about the appropriateness of using this variation on it for the name of a rock group.”
Some of his judgment calls came about as a result of looming legal activity. Chicago-based band, Chicago, was originally called Chicago Transit Authority until they were threatened with a lawsuit. “The group went along with my desire for a shorter name…” Davis concludes, not smugly, just matter-of-factly.
Some success stories happened because Davis believed in the intuitions of his clients. 'Odessey and Oracle' by the Zombies could have been shelved because by the time the album was set for release the band had broken up, but producer/player Al Kooper “insisted that it had potential, so I went along with him, and the single ‘Time of the Season’ became a Top 5 hit and an enduring marker of the era.”
It took work, but he encouraged Miles Davis to play at Fillmore East. The jazz composer expressed immediate disdain for the hippie youth, but after finally agreeing to perform, he stumbled upon a surprising new audience.
Davis dishes out plenty of entertaining show businesss anecdotes and walks the reader through a myriad of technological scares and advances. There are, too candid reflections on his two dissolved marriages and his later discoveries about his bisexuality. By the last page, you will really feel that you’ve gotten to know and understand Clive Davis, how he has upheld his career with the utmost integrity, and why he was equipped to rise from Brooklyn poverty to international success.
The more than 500 page book also contains top-notch photographs of superstars like Patti Smith. Puffy, Barry Manilow and Aretha Franklin. This is a superb reference book and equally excellent biography, written with sincerity and intelligence.