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Exploring pop music mogul Clive Davis' legendary career

Clive Davis arrives for a screening of the documentary about him in London on Sept. 5, 2017.
Clive Davis arrives for a screening of the documentary about him in London on Sept. 5, 2017.
Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

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If you haven’t heard of the record producer and executive Clive Davis, you’ll certainly recognize the big names he signed — Janis Joplin, Earth Wind and Fire, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston … the list goes on and on.

His contributions to the music industry are the focus of a new documentary called "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives."

Davis got his start with Columbia Records in the early 1960s as a lawyer. A few years later, he became the label’s president and — because he had a knack for turning unknown artists into pop superstars — he earned a reputation for having a golden ear.

The Frame’s John Horn spoke with Davis recently and they discussed the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, Whitney Houston, and his thoughts on the record industry today.

Interview Highlights:

On the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967 and discovering Janis Joplin:

It had to be the most transformative performance for me ever, to this day. It was an epiphany to be sitting there, not knowing that I'd be seeing unknown artists and to feel every fiber of my body vibrating, knowing that this was not only a social revolution, but a cultural one and a musical one. 

Here I was sitting, Haight Ashbury — in effect — right around me with robes and flowers in your hair. And I'm sitting there with my khaki pants and my tennis sweater. I mean, I was the one out of [place]. And then, all of a sudden, this compelling, hypnotic, electrifying artist is singing right in front of me. I knew that my life was changing; I knew that I had to trust my instincts; and I knew I was determined to sign the group.

On using profits from mainstream artists as leverage to sign less commercial bands:

I didn't sign Lou Reed, Graham Parker and Iggy Pop for mainstream singles. But I wanted the label to be attractive to rock artists. And we were appealing to the Grateful Dead to join us and the Kinks to join us. There's no doubt that the profits made from Barry Manilow and Kenny G went a long way to indulge my dealing more with cutting-edge artists.

One of the main narratives of the film focuses on Clive Davis relationship to Whitney Houston.
One of the main narratives of the film focuses on Clive Davis relationship to Whitney Houston.
Columbia Records/IM Global

On Whitney Houston and how she is portrayed in the film:

She was compelling, magnetic. She had genius in her natural vocal abilities. She was also engaging and a music freak. She would listen to every record on the radio. She was articulate and had heart. So when you only show the part of her when she might have been under the influence or out of sorts, it's really unfair. So I'm really glad that this film shows the full realm and nature and personality of Whitney without shying away from [her addiction].

On the music business today:

A few years ago, we in the industry were at serious risk. The public had grown used to the idea that [music was] free and should not be paid for, which is a horrific thought to the creative people — the writers, the arrangers, the producers and the record companies and music publishers. It was scary. But as the revolution has come to streaming ... the record companies are once again profitable and there are career opportunities in music. Obviously, there are still concerns. To me, there's a little too much homogenization. There's a little too much dance and a little too much hip-hop. I love both. But we do need the great voices, [like] Luther Vandross, Whitney. And we do need the provocative, [like] the two poet laureates — Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen — from the last 50 or more years. But the industry is healthy and music is healthy and for that I'm very grateful.  

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