Record company executive
One of the most powerful figures in the recording industry, Clive Davis has presided over Arista Records for more than two decades. Davis has helped to shape the trends in the pop and rock music industries since the mid-1960s, and he has piloted Arista Records through the changing musical scene of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—a period that gave birth to such innovative sounds as punk, grunge, and rap. Under Davis’s management, the small but influential Arista label has averaged more than $300 million in sales yearly since 1990 with a catalog that includes Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, the Grateful Dead, the Kinks, Crash Test Dummies, Brooks & Dunn, and Alan Jackson. Entertainer Barry Manilow—an Arista mainstay—told Newsday that the energetic Davis “has the mind of an executive and the ears of a teenager.” The singer added: “I don’t know if the other artists at Arista appreciate him, but I do.”
Davis is an unusual record company executive in that he takes an active role in guiding the musical development of his recording artists. He is recognized for his talent in matching artist, producer, and song so that a hit record is born. Singer Taylor Dayne described Davis’s methods in Newsday: “What you see is his commitment and devotion to an artist. He’s not alone out there, but because it is a more intimate label with a smaller roster, it allows him to get more involved with his artists. Sometimes, Clive gets down and dirty, really involved, and sometimes it’s appreciated. Sometimes it’s not. It’s criticism, and you either take it correctly, or get insulted. He gets so involved, he really likes to listen and give his input. He cares enough to say, ’I want to like everything on [an album], I want to know everything on there.’”
Clive Davis was born on April 4, 1934, and raised in Brooklyn, New York, in a blue-collar, working-class family. He managed to attend New York University and Harvard Law School, both on full tuition scholarships. In both cases he graduated with top honors, and he was admitted to the New York Bar Association in 1957. Three years later, he took a position as a staff attorney with Columbia Records (a subsidiary of CBS) in New York City. As the 1960s progressed, so did his standing in the company. By 1967 he had been named president of the CBS Records Group.
New York Times Magazine contributor Geoffrey Stokes wrote: “As president of Columbia Records, Clive Davis was the most powerful man in the recording industry.” With an ear for the vibrant rock music being played at the time—as well as a healthy respect for Tin Pan Alley-type popular tunes—Davis assembled one of the most impressive rosters of talent ever under the same record label. Columbia signed and produced such artists as
Born Clive Jay Davis, April 4, 1934, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Herman and Florence (Brooks) Davis; divorced; children: Fred, Lauren, Mitchell, Douglas. Education: New York University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1953; Harvard University, LL.B. (magna cum laude), 1956.
Rosenman, Colin, Freund, Lewis & Cohen (law firm), New York City, attorney, 1958-60; Columbia Records, New York City, general attorney, 1960-65, president, 1966-73; Arista Records, New York City, president, 1974—. Director of Record Industry Association of America. Author, with James Willwerth, of Clive: Inside the Record Business, 1975.
Selected awards: Man of the Year citation from Martell Foundation for Cancer, Leukemia and AIDS Research, 1980; named Humanitarian of the Year by the American Cancer Society, 1985; Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award from Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), 1991; Man of the Year citation from the Friars, 1992.
Addresses: Office —Arista Records, Inc., 6 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019-3913.
Janis Joplin; Santana; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Pink Floyd; Billy Joel; and Bruce Springsteen. Davis also worked with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Paul Simon, and Laura Nyro, and he was a featured participant in the biggest and most highly publicized music industry parties of the time. Under his stewardship, Columbia’s profits soared. The label became one of the most successful the music business had ever produced.
But in the summer of 1973, Davis was abruptly fired from his presidency of the CBS Records Group. Executives at CBS accused Davis of using $94,000 of the company’s money for personal expenditures. To this day, Davis insists that the “official” reason for his firing was only a convenient excuse, and that, in reality, his quick ouster was a matter of personality conflict.
The United States’ top record executive did not sit idle for long. In 1974 Davis took the helm of a small and struggling record company based in New York. He renamed the label Arista the following year and set about recruiting a stable of hit-producing stars. One of the first Arista success stories was Barry Manilow. Signed as a budding young pop singer in 1975, Manilow willingly accepted Davis’s advice on what sorts of songs to record and which tunes would most likely hit the top of the charts. Within two years, Manilow was a pop superstar whose albums went platinum and whose concerts sold out in the largest venues. Other artists who joined the Arista label included Patti Smith, Lou Reed, the Kinks, and Hall & Oates.
Within its first three years of existence, Arista Records leaped into the Top Ten most profitable record companies in America. Davis, who was part-owner of the company, sold Arista to a German conglomerate, the Bertelsmann Music Group, in 1980. He retained his position as president of the company and continued to work closely with his artists and producers to create million-selling singles and albums.
Arista Records celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in 1990 with a huge, televised music special featuring many of the label’s best-known artists. Chief among these was Whitney Houston. Her albums alone have generated more than $300 million in sales for Arista. Other performers who joined in the show that night were Manilow, Carly Simon, Taylor Dayne, the Eurythmics, Kenny G, and Dionne Warwick, to name a few. Also on hand was pop group Milli Vanilli—the duo of Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, who were subsequently discovered to be no more than effective lip-synchers. The Milli Vanilli scandal, however, did little to tarnish Arista’s image as a top pop label. Davis and other Arista executives maintained they had no knowledge of the high-tech hoax, and with much fanfare they dropped Pilatus and Morvan from the label.
Forbes magazine termed Arista “the only bright spot in Bertelsmann’s quest to become a major force in the U.S. entertainment business.” Still dwarfed by labels like CBS and MCA, Arista nevertheless reports healthy profits on sales of recordings in categories as varied as country, rap, rock, and jazz. For his part, Davis has no plans to retire or even scale back his involvement with the company and its artists. “I find I love what I’m doing,” he told Newsday. “When you find the Patti Smiths of the world, self-contained artists with something to say, it’s wonderfully exciting.”
Forbes, May 23, 1994.
Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1990; November 17, 1990; November 21, 1990; July 19, 1994.
Newsday (Long Island, NY), March 14, 1990.
Newsweek, June 11, 1973; July 7, 1975.
New York Times Magazine, April 24, 1977.
Rolling Stone, July 3, 1986.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Davis, Clive." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/davis-clive
"Davis, Clive." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/davis-clive
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