Clive Davis at 89: Whitney Houston, NYC Show, and Why He Won’t Retire

I. They come in droves, teeth and Bvlgari gleaming. Their smiles are tolerant for the red carpet step-and-repeat and much more earnest, earned, once they’re safely past the guarded double doors. In the room all together, they make up a living museum — a sentient Coachella poster, a Forbes billionaires list, teased out from the page into three-dimensional tulle and gold in the stately ballroom of the Beverly Hilton, whose valeted entrance pretends to hide from the main street but is given away by the snaked line of Aston Martins and Jaguars all the same. It’s the kind of thing that winks at you, wants you to know precisely that you’re not invited.

Inside, an untouchable feast of celebrity: There’s Beyoncé and Jay beaming at a pregnant Chrissy and John, Dua open-mouthed laughing at something Babyface says, Aretha tinkling out the national anthem on a piano on the mezzanine; there’s the suzerain of Republic, the C-suite of Sony Music, the full Rolodex of kingmakers and kings and queens who rule the music industry, squeezed semi-tensely around the same few white-draped tables. The annual cast of characters varies but the setting, the particular ritual, does not. At seven, the cocktails and hor d’oeuvres make their twirl around the room. At half past nine on the dot, he glides into the hard stage lights, greets the exploding applause, waves a hello from his stage-height pulpit with practiced, outstretched arms, and this is the glimmering way he always opens the party, which will go on and on and on and on until it can’t.

 

Contents

II.

 

“I don’t do it to prove people wrong,” scoffs Clive Davis.

Clive sits upright in a hard-backed chair and talks for hours on end without losing steam. Clive, in 2021, wears his 89 years like they’re layers of a custom-cut Ermenegildo Zegna — each heap of accolades sending another run of stitching up a sleeve, a hem, adding spark to a cufflink or two — and flaunts a surgical recall for dates and names and places. And there are a lot of dates and names and places. Over the years, Clive has been an executive in the top echelons of music, a record-label founder several times over, an A&R monarch, a CEO, a five-time Grammy winner, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, an American Idol guest judge, a documentary subject, a Manhattan penthouse owner, an honorary citizen of the Italian city of Capri, a namesake for a graduate school at New York University — and this is without tacking on the columns of artists he has signed and brought into the fore, obscenely long lists that stretch from Aretha and Alicia and Bruce to Usher and, of course, Whitney. Clive Davis is the only music executive of his era who is still waking up every day and working. Colleagues and enemies and journalists and onlookers press many names to him: mogul, hitmaker, overachiever, genius, puppeteer, megalomaniac. He has absorbed some of them and brushed off others. “I certainly don’t resent the term ‘mogul’ but I don’t try to live up to it,” he says. “I don’t continue to do things to prove a point. I just do what I always did. I never get too satisfied.”

We are in the double-height living room of his home in Pound Ridge, New York. It’s a gated 17-acre woodland estate comprising eight guest bedrooms, two pools, and a tennis court. Clive first locked eyes on the home in a stray 1991 advertisement in the magazine Unique Homes, and for three decades he flitted up here from Manhattan on weekends, only spending his first weekday on the grounds last year under the pandemic lockdown. Adorning us are French decanters, billowing earth-toned curtains that look out to finely pruned bushes and prim treetops, and a largely decorative grand piano — Clive has never played an instrument but he entertains with religious fervor, hosting dinner parties for musicians and managers and friends and family at a ferocious weekly clip — as well as a treasure trove of art by the likes of Damien Hirst, Frank Stella, and “my good friend David Hockney, who I have put at my gala with my good friend Joni Mitchell, and they’ve become great friends.”

These types of post-comma descriptors pepper Clive’s speech like verbal tics. The way other people might fall back on certain turns of phrase, “like” or “um” or “don’t you think” or “ultimately,” Clive can’t seem to help but fill every other sentence with a household name or two. He is not a profligate man (though he did splurge on a $200,000-a-week yacht rental once), but celebrities’ names tumble out of his mouth freely — a more rarified currency. He cuts a disjointed physical figure, rounded and soft in the jawline but alert and unwavering in his gaze. He says things like “I am sinking into this sofa!” with an intonation of gravest importance. We begin chatting from opposite couch seats, but a few minutes in, he asks someone to help him resettle in the rigid, spindly chair where he remains for the next four hours of our conversation. He wears a fine-knit sweater and starched shirt and orthopedic black Prada slides, which he refers to unironically and possibly unknowingly as “Crocs,” and he taps his feet slowly, methodically, while speaking, lending rhythm to his thoughts.

The year 2022 will mark nine decades of being alive — a foreign, unsteady thought. “Believe me, I understand the stereotypical impression of anybody who’s 90,” says Clive, with a grimace. “You don’t expect them to be working, active, to come up with any new ideas. I would like to be vital, participatory, to pave new stuff.” Here, in this second week of August, he has just put the finishing touches on the production for New York City’s homecoming bash, which crops up in Central Park in a few days; he is barrelling into the production of a Whitney Houston biopic; he is already planning the next iteration of his notorious Grammy gala, which, in 2021, he held as a two-part virtual synod, pushing through the setbacks of both a global pandemic and a bout of Bell’s Palsy, which temporarily paralyzed his facial muscles earlier this spring. 

Clive is preternaturally afraid of falling behind. “I’ve seen so many colleagues frozen in past eras, not knowing how music changes,” he says. Each morning, he spends an hour reading the New York Times (almost every word in the front section, with a particular interest in Sports, and only skipping Science and Food). He listens to every new song that wriggles into the Billboard Hot 100. Sony Music, where he’s held the position of chief creative officer since 2018, sends him press roundups and Clive reads them all printed out: It’s a daily nine- or ten-inch-thick tower of stapled papers, teetering above a moat of New York Magazines and Varietys, carried to him in the arms of an assistant. He works in marathon sprints throughout the day, straight up until one a.m. if he’s deep into something like his gala or the homecoming show. 

He reads voraciously, but it’s mostly news about the music business. “I really don’t have time for fiction,” Clive says. “I love to listen to music, and that is a loner’s pursuit — but that is not my life. At some point I’ll want to go to a restaurant. And I’ll never go alone.”

Clive doesn’t need to elaborate much on his distaste for aloneness: Even as we speak, he’s interrupted by multiple phone calls, one of which is from Whitney Houston’s agent (“We’re good friends, she’s coming over Sunday”) and another from Van Morrison’s rep Peter Paterno (“Patti Smith was very worried Van Morrison would not approve her performing ‘Gloria’ at this show, because they have not approved it for TV in the past, but I called and said ‘Do me a favor, it’d mean a lot,’ and Peter says he approved it”). Clive’s adult children describe him as “very bad at spending time alone.” Clive’s friends, who are mostly dispersed across art or theater or film rather than music, have their own running joke that he would rather grab a stranger off the street and cajole them into dining with him than ever sit down for a public meal solo. And it’s been that way for all his life. Jo Schuman Silver, the showrunner of the San Francisco musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon and a first cousin of Clive’s, recalls once announcing to Clive that she was heading to the movie theater to see a film, and a teenaged Clive replying —

Startled, totally nonplussed —

“By yourself?!”

 

III.

 

Here’s the part of the magazine profile where it’d go, “Clive Jay Davis was born in 1933 to working-class parents in Brooklyn, a backdrop that would go on to define so much of his life,” and slide through his career with polite chronology. 

In Clive’s case, though, nearly every step of his professional life has been documented with such excruciating detail — and so much of it by his own hand, across not just one but two hefty, stiff-spined autobiographies, first Clive: Inside the Record Business in 1975 then The Soundtrack of My Life in 2013 — that to take you through all the major points again would feel a bit like traipsing through Times Square. 

Some back alleys, then.

Clive is a prodigious young boy. The son and grandson of electricians and fruit-sellers. He swings big, beats out all the other kids in Crown Heights on tests and quizzes, stays up all night poring over math homework. He’s admitted to New York’s high school honor society, Arista — the Greek word for excellence. When he is a teenager, his parents unexpectedly die, his mother of a cerebral hemorrhage and his father of a heart attack a year later, and Clive moves in with the older married sister he barely knows, rattled and solitary with $4,000 to his name. But he’s first in his family to go college. He’s president of the freshman class at NYU, president of student council, head of the Young Democrats, swarmed by friends and admirers all the time. He makes Phi Beta Kappa, easy. He soars through to Harvard Law School on a full scholarship.

It’s among all the would-be law wunderkinds that he feels, for the first time, acutely alone: “I found law school so anxiety-ridden. I never felt secure, and when I got to Harvard none of my friends were there, and those separations all added to my loss of my parents and depression,” Clive says. He starts to realize that becoming a lawyer is a road he followed out of rote innate desire to, “as a Jewish kid, rise above the station of your working-class parents.” At a school therapist’s encouragement, he takes a job with a small law firm instead of a large one, but it crumbles after losing the chemical firm that is its biggest client — so he ends up at a larger firm, which happens to represent the broadcast and radio network CBS as a client, which leads to him to a job by total chance at CBS’s Columbia Records.

Now, Clive is a lawyer at a mammoth record label in the heyday of mammoth record labels. 

And under the tutelage of legendary head honcho Goddard Lieberson, he begins to fashion himself bigger dreams for his own stature in the world, beginning with a new clique of beloved friends, this time musicians instead of classmates. Goddard teaches him to build up “confidence in my ear,” as Clive puts it.  (“Goddard was just the most urbane, gorgeous man,” says Jo, who professes herself as having been a “Columbia teenybopper” at the time. “And when Clive saw someone he admired, he would learn from them. I said, ‘Clive, look at the way you dress now!’ And he said, ‘Goddard.’”) Clive has always adored show tunes — he has a particular fondness for the Forties radio program and romantic comedy Make Believe Ballroom — but he learns at Columbia to pluck apart the star-destined from the mediocre in a number of genres, and with unrivaled accuracy. By 1969, Clive is vice president of CBS/Columbia Music, and he’s setting new acts on fire left and right — Barry Manilow, Janis Joplin, Santana, Aerosmith, scorching across America — and, moreover, planting a flag for the record company on the thrilling new moon of rock music. Chroniclers of this era of the music business will observe that Clive seems determined to be respected not just as a “great record man” but a “great rock record man,” which is its own kind of sanctum sanctorum: For an executive to transcend the weedy, vacuum-sealed discussions in midtown boardrooms and go out and break a ruffian rock star is to command a tantalizing, dripping amount of awe. 

“My first impression was, this was a guy who was completely in charge,” says Rick Dobbis, an industry stalwart who first met Clive as an entry-level employee in the college promotion department at CBS, later headed up marketing at Clive’s Arista Records, and then went on to hold a litany of executive roles including president of Sony Music International. “Clive chaired meetings wearing suits and ties, and it was 1970, not a suit and tie world. He likes his time in the spotlight. He has always liked to call attention to himself, and as a boss, he was deeply involved in everything.” 

It is smack in the loud Seventies, as the founder and chief of Arista, a label he names after his laurels in the New York City public school system, that Clive dreams up the singular event that will go on to define the next 40 years of his life and headlines: the pre-Grammy gala that absolutely, almost indecently, drips with celebrity caché. Every year on the night of the Grammy Awards, the music industry’s favorite exercise in navel-gazing, managers and labels and publishers go mad trying to outbid one another for Los Angeles’ hippest venues — so Clive decides to throw a party at the Beverly Hills Hotel on the unclaimed night before, and he wrangles a whole set of jaw-dropping RSVPs, celebrity friends who agree not only to appear but to perform, and often in pairs or trios they’ve never tried before — to be part of an outrageous, previously unattempted private variety-show spectacle. 

“The night Stevie Wonder and Elton John showed up, I knew I was onto something unique,” Clive says, reveling in the oft-shared memory from 1976. He sits a little more upright whenever he talks about the party. “It stays true to this day. It’s the show people remember. It’s the hottest ticket.” One year, the invites get so coveted that the party bursts well out of the Beverly Hills Hotel’s 500-person capacity. “There was a break as fire marshals came in and moved around the tables, and I was afraid people would leave — but no one left, and do you know why? Because Robin Williams stood up and did a 33-minute stand-up comedy routine.” (The gala moves permanently to the twice-as-big Beverly Hilton, the following year.) Clive remembers painstaking details. Pure pride beams through his face, the windows, his chest. 

“He walks through a crowd like Mr. Magoo, not looking right or left, everybody pulling at him, and he just loves it,” says Jo. “That’s been my whole life — everybody flocking to him, always wanting to be around him.”

This outrageous landmark party, officially the “Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Gala,” is the reason Clive goes on to spend 40 years shuttling back and forth between his Ritz Tower penthouse in New York and the Beverly Hills Hotel. His four children all learn how to walk in the latter, teetering their first steps down the hallways of the same bungalow that Clive always rents when he’s out in Los Angeles. Nowadays, as adults, all four have their own families and law degrees and they rule over their own fiefs in music: His oldest, Fred, is an investment banker at the media- and music-focused Raine Group; then there’s Lauren, a professor and academic director at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music; Mitchell, a concert booker in Los Angeles; and Doug, a producer and music attorney who copilots Clive’s Grammy gala and brokers the deal for the Recording Academy to ultimately underwrite the expenses after Arista lets go of the reigns. Clive’s grandchildren, of which there are eight, pass through the same rites of baby passage at the old hotel as a byproduct of how much time the family spends there: “I have on video both of my kids walking for the first time in the Beverly Hills Hotel,” confirms Doug.

Family — a word that, perhaps because he can so clearly recall the wound his parents leave, rules so much of Clive’s thinking. His kids have different mothers (two by each of his wives, Helen Cohen and Janet Adelberg), but he has raised them as one compressed unit, mandating weekly get-togethers and frequent phone calls. “Our fights were all over trite things, me showing up to Sunday dinners wearing short sleeves or not being shaven,” says his oldest son Fred. “I’ve never made a move without asking his advice. He thinks things through. He doesn’t just talk off the top of his head,” says Jo, who vacations with Clive’s kids in places like Capri and Los Angeles and St. Barts, the whole gang of them migrating away twice a year as a single large flock. On one trip to St. Barts, Clive encounters a “magnificent” Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and becomes somewhat enamored with the breed. He has one, now, pattering around the Pound Ridge home, a beautifully tasseled creature named Charlie. Several of his children also have Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

For the four, the legacy of Clive’s name is an uneasy line to walk. “I will never be the mogul Mount Everest that he is,” Doug, who works the most intimately with his father, says freely. “You can’t grow up Clive Davis’ kid and even attempt to compete. You will come up short. And that is a road to unhappiness.” Throughout his early years, Doug felt he was “carrying a backpack filled with rocks that you didn’t ask to carry,” and it took him surviving cancer, in the form of a neuroendocrine tumor, 15 years ago, to realize he could carve his own path in music advocacy, focusing on initiatives like the album American Dreamers, which put DACA recipients on patriotic jazz tracks and was lauded by Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi and the Grammy voting body. “My measuring stick is not commercial like my father’s, it’s impact,” Doug says.

Clive adores theater — ”I long for when the music coming out of Broadway was the music of our time” — and the self-made history of his career sometimes also feels like a stage show, a carefully controlled prism. His personal website declares him the “industry’s most innovative, influential executive.” Yet he hates being called a “Svengali” and protests at the word “overachiever.” You could be forgiven for thinking he wrote his own Netflix-hosted documentary, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives — it’s actually directed and produced by an independent team — because it delivers 123 minutes of such sparkling hagiography, half of which is simply Clive rattling off winsome anecdotes about his artist roster to the camera. There’s an urban myth, or possibly a complete truth, about Clive’s secretary at one point thinking the word “CD” was named after “Clive Davis.” His actual autobiographies, though extensive, reveal startlingly little of an interior world: The New York Times review of his 2013 book The Soundtrack of My Life observes that he’s “so reticent about his personal life that you’d think he was worried Clive Davis might sue him.” Clive does peel the curtain back a tad in the last section of that book, if a little rigidly, when he shares that he is bisexual and has had, after his two marriages, relationships with men dating back to the “era of Studio 54.”

With the determination of a bolted ship’s rudder, Clive finds a way to steer any and all topics back to his party, and he refuses to cede authorship on any of the details. I bring up that one of the Grammy gala’s defining attributes is its sheer length, noting that everyone spent six or seven hours in that ballroom when I attended in 2019; Clive disputes this timekeeping (”that’s an exaggeration, let me tell you the facts!”) and is adamant that the party is breezy, quick-tempoed, clocking in at “three, three and a half hours at most.” He doesn’t go home after the party: He has a routine of absconding with his closest friends to the Polo Lounge for a drink to debrief on the success of the night. Asked where or how he learned to host parties, Clive conjures a rather biblical origin story: “All this stuff has been natural instinct to me. I just gravitate. I don’t know why.”

He must often hear his party compared to the splashy cabals of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I say. Clive says, “No, I don’t think that’s come up,” but immediately adds that he does hear parallels all the time to the real-world Oscars parties of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and Irving “Swifty” Lazar, the only other two events in Hollywood that rival his in stature — and they’re nice, sweet little things, but, Clive says with an uninterested wave of a hand, “really just cocktail dinner parties.”

NEW YORK - 1984: Music executive Clive Davis introduces pop singer Whitney Houston in 1984 in New York, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Davis introduces Whitney Houston in New York, 1984

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

 

IV.

 

Yet ghosts swim at the corners, for all the triumphs. Clive professes to have “a healthy respect for failure” — but it’s clear he does not consider the words respect and acceptance to be synonyms. He burns with a visible, hard anger when two loaded words come up: “Columbia,” the first grenade, “Arista,” the second. Despite the decades that stand between those events and now, Clive thinks of both episodes as unsettled affairs.

In May of 1973, under its new president Arthur Taylor, a whiz-kid banker whose go-getter credentials rivaled Clive’s, CBS/Columbia abruptly severed its relationship with Clive. The charges: that he spent some $90,000 of company funds on renovations for his personal apartment, on a Californian rental home, and on a son’s bar mitzvah. Industry insiders, with their truffle-pig noses for sniffing out scandal from the air, suspected more to the story, perhaps involving prostitution, large-scale payola, or a hard-drug racket. “​If there was nothing else to this whole thing, it would be the most outrageous action a company took against a senior executive,” a source close to CBS told Rolling Stone in June that year, as Clive cloistered in closed rooms with his lawyer, facing a grand jury probe. Columbia issued no public statement. Clive left the company. The allegations against him were never proven, and many in the industry agree now that the whispers about drugs or payola were merely bombastic invention, but, for a while, they dragged after him in the business like toxic smoke trails. 

“When there are articles that say I was fired from CBS because of financial impropriety, that still upsets me. It was wrong reporting,” Clive says, citing the documentary of his life as apparent evidence that there was “clearly no financial impropriety, no paying for my son’s bar mitzvah — it was five weeks later and the guy who was convicted for fraudulent invoices took the bill and said he was getting me a discount.” He adds that “CBS knew all the facts. They knew I never, ever intended my son’s bat mitzvah to be reimbursed by CBS. But a six-month president was told by a law firm to separate himself from the record division because there was a chance there could be payola and they couldn’t remotely be affected by that.”

But this bow-tied account of the story is not undisputed. Clive’s closest aide, David Wynshaw, was ultimately found by a federal investigation to have fabricated invoices; Clive said he knew nothing of Wynshaw’s actions, but “in my judgment, [Clive] told me no truth at all, and I had the data in my desk,” the CBS/Columbia president Arthur Taylor told the journalist Fredric Dannen, who examined the event in his 1990 book Hit Men, a chronicle of fetid behind-scenes dealings in that era of the music business. Said Taylor: “Had he told me the truth, there might have been a way to save him. I didn’t want to defame the man, but he did not come clean with me. That alone was the reason the board decided to dismiss him.” Upon hearing how he was going to be portrayed in Hit Men, Clive threatened to sue Dannen, siccing Martha Stewart’s hotshot lawyer Robert Morvillo on him and single-handedly holding up the manuscript’s release by two months. Dannen’s Random House editing team was spooked, but decided to forge ahead with publication of the book after Dannen pointed out to them that many of Clive’s “actionable items” were, in fact, details and facts that Dannen had gleaned from the record man’s own autobiography, as well as irrationally harsh objections to words like “overachiever.” 

“One suspects he’s lacking in self-knowledge, but I don’t know the man. Clive’s always struck me as somebody who is very, very bitter about his treatment by CBS,” Dannen tells Rolling Stone. “He’s rewritten that history tremendously. I mean, I have a copy of this allocution he said in front of Judge Thomas Griesa [the district court judge who ultimately fined Davis $10,000 for tax evasion in 1976, though the majority of other CBS-era charges against him were dismissed] in which he admitted his guilt in that case. But it’s as if it never happened. He rewrites history and reality.”

Fred Davis recalls first being aware of his father’s prominence when he was 13 or 14, arriving home to find Clive’s name and the ugly details of the scandal punched into inky history across the front page of the New York Times. “It all happened somewhat suddenly — he couldn’t have given [us] a heads up. He was sideswiped by it,” Fred said. Clive later discouraged a young adult Fred from working in the record business, though Fred, like his siblings, would later let himself be tugged by sheer centrifugal force into the industry’s orbit. In his first autobiography, Clive wrote that his family, friends, and a number of people from CBS/Columbia came over to comfort him on the afternoon of his firing “and, in effect, sat shiva with me.”

“I was the victim. I was sacrificed. Everybody in the record division knew it,” says Clive. “You could see it in Paul Simon’s interview in my documentary, and I didn’t do my own documentary, Ridley Scott did it. If there had been financial impropriety, would the company have given me a check for $1 million as I sold my next company?” (Ten months after the ousted Clive founded Arista Records, CBS mailed him a licensing check made out for $1 million and bearing the logo, “The Columbia Records Club.”) “I mean, what better verification? To still read someone saying, ‘He was fired for financial impropriety’ — there is still hurt that any of that could linger.” 

The skirmish over Arista was the second great battle of Clive’s life, as a sedulous Vanity Fair account of the affair put it. In 1974, a year after CBS’s slap to his face, Clive was, despite near-bankruptcy, already opening the doors of a sleek new label with a cash cushion from film exec Alan Hirschfield. And as far as comebacks go, this one was a killer, a true template in revenge fantasies: Arista reeled in heavyweights like Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Westlife, the Grateful Dead, and Lou Reed, and was forecasting $100 million in sales in 1981 when Clive sold the label to Bertelsmann Music (now BMG). Over and over for the next two decades — with almost rudely successful Number Ones from Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston seesawing against company in-fighting and deals that appeared duds at the outset, like the expensive joint-venture Bad Boy Records with Sean “Puffy” Combs — Arista struck gold, teetered into the red, and pulled back up again to spoils and glory. 

Then, at the turn of the century, rumors kicked up that Bertelsmann was preparing to put Clive out to pasture. Was it his age? His balance sheets? His somewhat domineering style that no longer dovetailed with a changing world? His insistence, as the New York Post alleged, that Arista pay for liposuction on Faith Evans’ thighs?

Clive pounced to meet the attacks mid-air. He issued a public statement: “I would like to make it clear that I have no plans whatsoever to retire. At age 66, I am absolutely at the peak of my powers.”

“You would read that I was pushed out of Arista. The fact is, I was in no way pushed out of Arista,” Clive says in Pound Ridge, unprompted, broaching the topic himself. 

Arista’s overlords seemed to think otherwise. They had temporarily waived their company’s standard retirement-at-60 rule for Clive and they weren’t willing to do it again, per multiple executives at the time. Clive physically walked out of a dinner when Bertelsmann CEO Strauss Zelnick and chairman Michael Dornemann tried to cajole him out of Arista and into a hands-off chairmanship role. “I sympathize with Clive, but the bottom line is, he hasn’t owned this company or any part of it for 25 years,” a Bertelsmann insider told Vanity Fair in 2000. “We do.”

Clive offers his own set of figures. “I had made $23 million because of my equity the year before and the Germans who owned Arista [Bertelsmann] knew I was at the height of my career. I’d just produced ‘My Love Is Your Love’ with Whitney. I’d just broken all-time records. I had not peaked,” he says. “It was the height of my career. But they didn’t want me to continue with my equity profit participation. I said no, I love working, I love being the head of profit centers and I don’t want to give up my equity share. They said, Well, the head of Bertelsmann is retiring at 60 and for you to still retain your share… we cannot continue the arrangement. And I said, That’s unfair, and I have this offer from Interscope. And they said, What does it take for you to stay with us? And this is word for word what happened. I could no longer stay as chairman of Arista, but it’s not because I was too old or unsuccessful, any of that, so we came up with the terms of what it’d take to keep me. Anytime I read that they pushed me out, it’s absurd. I was at the height of my power.”

Whatever the company’s distaste for Clive to keep running Arista, Bertelsmann was reluctant to lose him to a direct competitor, so Clive gave his bare-knuckled terms: A new label, with “everything Arista had.” A $150 million budget, and ten knockout artists, half of them already platinum or multi=platinum (“I was not starting from scratch”). He called it J Records. He offered jobs to 18 senior executives from Arista, and all 18 said yes, which felt “really good.”

“[The deal] required significant resources, but if Clive continued doing what he had done all those years before, the model made sense,” J Records co-founder Charles Goldstuck told my colleague David Browne in 2001, as the label was becoming a hot magnet anew, buoyant off of remarkable victories from O-Town, Alicia Keys, and Rod Stewart. “Clive has a love for music and this business that I’ve never seen in anybody. He has a ball. He comes in and he’s happy as a clam every day.” Keith Naftaly and Peter Edge, both A&R execs who followed Clive from Arista to J, characterized him as “designed for combat” and “a fighter who definitely put on the air of ‘I’m not lying down,’” and Tom Corson, who Clive appointed J’s head of worldwide marketing, recalled Clive’s insistence on making J an “instant major” — a “lofty goal, but Clive used the term very early.”

Asked why Clive did not simply agree to retire as the parent company had requested, BMG’s North America CEO Bob Jamieson said: “Because he still has that desire to still have a Number One record. It’s what he does. He loves the music business. To my knowledge, I don’t think he has any other hobbies he enjoys — this is his life, 24/7. It’s not like he’s doing it for the money. That’s the end result.”

“Overnight, J Records was Arista, and within three years we broke Alicia Keys wide open,” Clive says, and a smile creaks, maybe subconsciously, into his cheeks: “And Arista failed — terribly.” 

“He’s not going to retire. You don’t bring it up. You know who he is. It’s not up for discussion.”

Clive was a hot-air balloon again. He threw his parties, graced by Gladys Knight and Tony Bennett and Gloria Estefan. They gave him bigger and bolder winds. Michael Greene, the president of the Recording Academy introduced Clive at the 2001 gala with holy zeal: “God finds a way to take us to our limit and forges a new resolve inside of us. I don’t know anybody who’s been to the top of so many mountains as Clive Davis.” BMG would later buckle and appoint Clive the head of the RCA label group. “They not only gave me back Arista, but I also got the Foo Fighters, Justin Timberlake, Jive Records,” Clive says, the corners mouth turning upward almost unconsciously. “I know what the real facts are.”

There’s an odd effect, psychologists say, where the more times you tell a story with even the most minor embellishments, the more those false features become part of the story as you think it happened. The greater the number of people you instill the exaggerated story on, the more it spreads outside of you, the more it ricochets and lodges back into your mind as the absolute truth. And Clive is the ultimate reteller of stories, saturating news outlets with repeat anecdotes from his life. Yet he is also someone who maintains faith in “the record” as an objective, external force. He fights for control of the story and pauses to look for the belief in the listener’s eyes. Clive lost his license to practice law as a result of his CBS firing in 1973, but he studied to pass the bar again decades later, needing to ensure “no question mark on the record.” He has no patience for innuendo; he needs the numbers and dates and verbs to reflect exactly what he did and where.

“This is somebody who should have inspired loyalty, but didn’t, because of his ego problems,” Dannen says. But “for all of the rancor that has existed between Clive and me, if someone had asked me about a friend who was an up-and-coming musician and Clive asked to produce this artist — I would have said, ‘Go with Clive.’ If you’ve got his attention and the potential, Clive will make a star out of you.”

“He likes his time in the spotlight,” says Dobbis. “I give him credit for continuing to work… On the other hand, there’s a time in life when maybe the best way you can contribute is to pass the ball to someone else… Why does someone throw a party the night before the Grammys? It’s a celebration of self. To be frank about it, he puts on this event in his own honor. He was a big, powerful person, who I learned a lot from, and I think he judges himself an enormous success.”

 

V.

 

The other dark cloud is Whitney, Whitney, Whitney. Clive first set his gaze on Whitney Houston in 1983 at the Upper West Side club Sweetwater’s, where she was backup-singing for her mother Cissy Houston. Whitney took center stage at one point to bolt out “The Greatest Love of All” — a song that Clive happened to have commissioned 10 years earlier for a movie about Muhammed Ali, and the flattering coincidence, coupled with her voice, completely toppled him. Though he did not “find” Whitney (Arista’s talent scout Gerry Griffith was the one who steered the label to the club), Clive signed her, promoted her, launched her like a slingshot. He helped propel her to boggling worldwide record sales and an acting debut in the 1992 film The Bodyguard, whose soundtrack singularly notched Arista some $200 million, the bulk of cultural attention on the Clive-supplied “I Will Always Love You.” She drowned in a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton in 2012, a few hours and floors above where hotel staff were laying out the prim tablecloths for Clive’s Grammy gala.

“Whitney signed to Arista because of me,” Clive says. “This was the only time in my career we gave a key man clause, which meant that if I left, she could leave. That is documentation of how important I was to her.” (Clive’s nonbelievers challenge the closeness of their relationship, and some in the industry say he has taken outsized credit for her achievements — but this, too, is lacking in an objective account.)

Many a filmmaker has taken up a lens to Whitney’s life and death. Clive thinks not a single one of them has ever “gotten it right.” For the 2018 documentary Whitney, Clive says he sat with Kevin MacDonald for multiple five-hour conversations that never made it into the reel. The doc also didn’t feature any of Whitney’s music, which distressed him.

“Kevin had a good background, the estate appointed him, and he asked me to be his first interview. I poured myself into it,” Clive says. “He called me six months later and said that he’s not really covering the music in the documentary and I was really not going to be in it. He said he’d just found out [about the allegations that] Dee Dee Warwick had molested Whitney when she was a teenager and he thought it was so startling that he was going off of that. He just left out all of her professional side. But music ran through her veins. It drove her. Why did she only meet with me to pick out every song for her album? It was she and I, no one else. He left it all out.”

He’s ready to muster it all, again, for the Whitney biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody, and this time he’s got a direct hand in the matter, as co-producer. “I want to give them everything I know about Whitney, giving the true full story, which has never been captured yet” Clive says. “Not to whitewash or soften anything about her tragic death prematurely from a drug addiction — but fleshing out who she was, what she was, so that you get the full picture of someone who’s one of the three greats of all time.” (The other two greats, to Clive’s mind, are Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand.) Anthony McCarten, who made the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, wrote the screenplay, and Naomi Ackie will play Whitney.

The Clive character of the biopic has not been cast yet, but Clive says he has personally requested Stanley Tucci to step into his shoes. “I thought he’d be a good candidate,” he says. “Another actor I looked into is Sam Rockwell. I think they’ve put out the asks.”

 

VI.

 

Eighty-nine years, and nothing has dulled. Not the grief of his parents, not the still-open abrasions of Columbia and Arista, not the deep obsessive pride, certainly not the wriggling worry in the center of Clive’s chest over every misstep, every perceived slight, every scan of his name in headlines preceded by an adjective he does not prefer. 

Retirement is verboten. It’s not a topic his children or extended family try to broach with him — though many of them wish, for the sake of his health, he’d consider it. Bertelsmann had tried to push him toward it, and so perhaps the idea is entangled with enemy action. “He’s not going to retire,” Fred says. “We [as a family] always want that. But you don’t bring it up. You know who he is. It’s not up for discussion.” Despite his role as half the production team for the annual gala, Doug says that putting on the party without his father is “not a concept I would like to play out — it’s his party and his legacy, and I cannot conceive of doing it without him. I do it to do it with him.”

Eighty-nine years, and Clive has been remarkably consistent in his habits. He used to take his sons to baseball games where they’d sit, peacefully silent, breaking the quiet only to recite a batting average or two, forever a family with an encyclopedic memory for dates and figures. From the corner offices of multiple music juggernauts, he stoked fear and yearning in a new generation of music men and women — who, it turned out, were to be the last true generation of so-called moguls, as the record industry began ceding its brawny might in the streaming era to statisticians, technology executives, and economists. “He always saw himself as a star. Clive walked into meetings always prepared and organized, which was a lesson I took with me,” Dobbis says. “On the other hand, he could be dismissive and a bit uncourteous at times, and I don’t even know if he would deny that.” In the pandemic, Clive spent first a few months with friends in Palm Springs, before renting out a house in Miami and luring his family to stay out there. Then, this spring, he returned to New York, climbed back into self-assigned work as he has done every day since the age of 18. 

Aside from the brief school-sanctioned bout of counseling, Clive has never sought therapy. He considers himself a frightfully anxious man, but has turned it into an edge, using it to barrel onward, gathering further energy from seeing everyone around him of his age either die or call it quits. 

My whole career, says Clive, has been “being paid a lot of money to worry.”

“What do you worry about?” I ask Clive in Pound Ridge, the week before New York’s Central Park bash.

“Everything.”

“What do you worry about right now?”

“Right now? Rain,” says Clive, peering out the windows at the brilliant blue sky with utmost suspicion.

 

VII.

 

It does rain, when it comes down to it. Another thing that Clive can say he’s right about. 

A few days after I leave Clive’s house with the weather hot and promising, on the night of the homecoming concert, the sky above Manhattan splits open — pours with some sort of appalling, almost punitive, satisfaction over the supposed celebration, smack in the middle of the setlist on the evening of August 21st, with most of the heavy-hitters still waiting in the wings, unable to close out the show that the city of New York had touted for eight weeks as the great demarcating line that would put the long-dragging pandemic behind.

Barry Manilow, the man who carried Clive’s Arista, is mid-lyric, his mouth curled around a breath, when a harried staffer flits onto the stage, arms windmilling. On the gargantuan digital screens a message blares in the kind of ugly, unstyled red capital letters that Clive would never condone at one of his polished fêtes: ATTENTION! DUE TO APPROACHING SEVERE WEATHER, ALL PERSONS SHOULD MOVE QUICKLY AND CALMLY TO THE NEAREST EXIT AND PROCEED TO YOUR VEHICLES AND PROTECTED AREAS OUTSIDE OF THE FESTIVAL SITE, it says, and, PLEASE SEEK SHELTER FOR YOUR SAFETY. Manilow has to bow unceremoniously off the stage, his riff unfinished, though he’ll later cap off the night with an acoustic version for Anderson Cooper on CNN. Paul Simon, who lives near Central Park, waits the rain out in his apartment for a chance of resumption that doesn’t come. The water-laden grass mushes into mud and cakes the ankles of attendees darting into subway stations for refuge.

The day after the torrent, Clive writes on his social media — or, more likely, someone else types as Clive dictates, given that Clive does not prefer to interact much with the online world on his own, and the visual is so clear, Clive in a hard-backed seat somewhere, pensive, writing out loud in his deliberate, cadenced Brooklyn jaunt — that he is thankful to the “extraordinary artists” and “truly phenomenal music” and dearly wishes he had been able to finish the show. “Before the weather turned on us with a record-breaking rainfall, we were enjoying a show like no other,” Clive writes. (Even Clive’s rain, of course, has to break records.)

Today, half a month after the rained-out concert, Clive says he and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office are in active talks to put on a potential sequel for the curtailed show, which would offer Bruce, Paul, and Patti a new chance to perform — but the sudden ravage of Hurricane Ida across New York City has put a tear in the conversation, and the production team is in a holding pattern waiting for the mayor’s office to get back with an update on whether the sequel should proceed. The first half of the show “was clearly resonating throughout Central Park, there was no question, everyone was feeling it,” Clive says, with his characteristic confidence, this week. “All of a sudden, the weather forecast changed, and we thought we’d be able to resume. The artists were all waiting in the wings.” Around ten o’clock, though, the watery splatter was doubling down and de Blasio’s office called the show off for good. Clive left the park: “I went straight home. I didn’t linger.”

Clive has since been solicited for a number of new “projects of interest” whose details are still confidential, he says. Over the coming months, he plans to take up two or three of these projects, on top of the Whitney biopic and the planning of his 2022 gala. Yet if the mayor’s office calls back with a go-ahead on a sequel concert, he will readily also juggle that production onto the slate. Clive, for one, has unfinished business. 

Diana Markosian for Rolling Stone. Grooming by Sajata Robinson.

Diana Markosian for Rolling Stone. Grooming by Sajata Robinson.

Diana Markosian for Rolling Stone

Related Posts

error: Content is protected !!