Clive Davis and Pharrell Williams
Photo: Michael Tran/FilmMagic/Getty Images
2018 GRAMMYs: Clive Davis Talks Pre-GRAMMY Gala, Whitney Houston & More
Over the last six decades, Clive Davis — "The Man With the Golden Ear" — has had a singular impact on popular music, shaping the sounds and careers of talents ranging from Aerosmith to Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin to Patti Smith, and Bruce Springsteen to Alicia Keys and Notorious B.I.G.
His official positions have included a stint as head of Columbia Records and the founder of the Arista and J labels, but his influence and esteem are greater than any one job title — a point driven home each year by the roster of A-list talents who perform at his annual event hosted with the Recording Academy, the Pre-GRAMMY Gala.
Davis, 85, was recently the subject of a compelling documentary, fittingly titled Clive Davis: The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. And on Jan. 27, he'll preside over the 2018 installment of the Pre-GRAMMY Gala, which will see Jay-Z receive the Academy's Salute To Industry Icons Award.
With GRAMMY Week 2018 upon us, and with several new projects still filling his amazingly busy schedule, Davis took the time to talk about his reaction to the film, his enduring relationships with artists, and a few of his favorite Pre-GRAMMY Gala memories.
What was your reaction the first time you saw Clive Davis: The Soundtrack Of Our Lives?
I was really moved. I had no role in it other than being interviewed for it so until I saw the completed film — I'd never seen the footage of each of the other people that were interviewed for it . You know, this business is often ephemeral but seeing how many artists participated in the film — to see Simon And Garfunkel reminisce about how I picked "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as a single, to hear the memories of Patti Smith, Bobby Weir of the Grateful Dead, Dionne and Aretha, Jennifer Hudson and Santana and Alicia Keys — that really was a thrill.
When I wrote my autobiography, I was thrilled with how well it did — but someone could always say, "Well, that's his version." When you see the documentary and see that these artists did not forget, and you see that our relationships were something reciprocal — that moved me greatly. It really did.
"The first time you hear a particular talent rise to its peak with a particular piece of material, it's a chilling, spine-tingling moment."
You've helped artists begin careers, maintain careers and revive careers. How has your role shifted in those situations?
When you sign an artist from scratch they're relying on your musical expertise for guidance — not for molding but for guidance. You're really trying to bring the best possible audience to them without bastardizing their creativity, and I'm very proud of the matchups of songs and artists that were a part of launching the careers of Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, and many others.
When you design a comeback — it's different. Rod Stewart came to me with his idea of doing The Great American Songbook and we worked together on it. In that case, you're dealing with a seasoned artist so all the awareness of the talent is there. There's no guidance needed — it's more a collaboration. That applies to bringing Santana back with "Smooth" or working with Aretha or Dionne all these years, or Barry Manilow's Greatest Songs albums. There's tremendous gratification in saying to an artist, "Yes, maybe you're not as big as you used to be but you should be. Your talent is prodigious and unique, and you've got many more years left in your career."
So many different types of artists have benefited from your "golden ear." Can you explain your ability to work with such a range of talents and musical styles?
You have to begin by understanding that each artist is an individual, and while you're looking for those artists that could be headliners, you use very different criteria. You're going to judge Santana differently from Dionne Warwick and Billy Joel different from Whitney Houston. The first time you hear a particular talent rise to its peak with a particular piece of material, it's a chilling, spine-tingling moment. But the extra thrill for me is how long the careers have lasted for so many of the artists that I have signed or have worked with, and how many of them are still doing wonderful work.
Your Pre-GRAMMY Galas have long been a major component of GRAMMY Week. Do you have some favorite moments from those celebrations?
Many, many, many. One special memory comes from the first time Alicia Keys performed "Fallin'" at the gala as a new artist. I told her that the good news was that I was going to introduce her to the industry. The bad news was that she was going to have to follow Gladys Knight singing "Midnight Train To Georgia." Hearing an all-time great artist and a new bright light deliver incredible performances back-to-back was wonderful.
I vividly remember Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas performing "Smooth" before most people had even heard the record. We decided to break the record by having it performed at the gala, and the place went nuts. Word of mouth spread and the rest is history.
One other vivid memory among many happened in 2000, the year I was leaving Arista to form J Records. I decided that there would only be two artists performing that year — Carlos and Whitney. The first half of the evening was Carlos Santana playing all the hits that he and I had been involved with. Then Whitney came on, just at the top of her form, and sang every song directly to me. So, it all took on new meaning as she sang "I Believe In You And Me" and "I Will Always Love You." Of course, the emotion of that was tremendous.
Maybe it's crazy to ask, but are there still things you hope to accomplish?
I've got to tell you — this documentary based on my life entered the iTunes best-selling documentaries at No. 1. I've always been on the other side of the desk, but for me personally to be at No. 1 was a new thrill. And I'm involved with other projects — I'm working with Johnny Mathis and I'm in the studio with Jennifer Hudson. There are a number of projects that are exciting to me.
So you still get some of those spine-tingling moments?
I certainly do. That's why I do what I do.
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis, Elvis: My Best Man, and Running With The Champ: My Forty-Year Friendship With Muhammad Ali.)