He is the man with the “golden ear,” the New York lawyer turned record company executive who, first at Columbia and then at Arista, signed and worked with artists from Janis Joplin to Bruce Springsteen, from Whitney Houston to Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Alicia Keys and The Grateful Dead. Over a 50-year period, he has (as Sean “Puffy” Combs puts it) “made the soundtrack for our lives.”
Clive Davis was an unlikely figure to be in the music business at all. “The emphasis in Jewish families who did not have any money is that you’ve gotta be a lawyer or you’ve gotta be a doctor,” the bespectacled Davis recalls early on in Chris Perkel’s film about him. His mother died when his second year at college was beginning. His father died the following year. He was left an orphan but, after Harvard, landed a job at one of New York’s top law firms. A white collar career seemed to be opening up to him.
The transformative moment came when, as a lawyer working for Columbia, Davis went to the Monterey Pop Festival and encountered ‘60s counter-culture at first hand. During this period, Columbia shunned rock music and had a roster of middle-of-the-road artists.
“I was blown away. I had never seen any hint of the cultural, social revolution coming out of Haight-Ashbury,” Davis recalled. He was there wearing slacks and a tennis sweater. When Janis Joplin came on stage, he felt his “arms tingle” and his “spine vibrate,” and was overcome with emotion. He realised that there wasn’t just a social revolution underway, but a musical one as well. Joplin was the first artist he ever signed.
“Clive had written a very successful autobiography a few years back and the property ended up at Ridley Scott’s production company to adapt into a film,” Perkel explains of the circumstances that led to his directing the documentary, which includes 58 interviews and 130 music cues. “I happened to be talking to them about another project at the time and have a background in music docs, having done work for great filmmakers like Cameron Crowe and Morgan Neville, as well as work with the Coachella festival. So when they began considering directors, they asked if I were interested, and of course I jumped at the chance to throw my hat in the ring. I’m thrilled it worked out the way it did, to say the least.”
Davis, the buttoned-up executive from a legal background, was equally at home with R&B and pop artists, country singers, rappers, hip-hop stars and soul singers. They all seem to trust him implicitly. They all knew, too, his reputation for spotting talent and turning out hit after hit. As for Davis, having experienced bereavement (first his parents when he was young and then, more recently, Whitney Houston) and professional humiliation, he has never taken his success for granted. That is why he is still as driven now to find new artists, re-package older stars, and to keep on trying to sell records in their millions.