Clive Davis offers music business 101 in new autobiography

How you feel about music executive Clive Davis’ second memoir depends on which word you emphasize in the term “music business.”

If curiosity about the artistry draws you to Davis’ lengthy Soundtrack of My Life, your opinion of the man who releases the music the whole world sings probably won’t change. But if an interest in business drives you, the book, written with Anthony DeCurtis, is fascinating for the way it exhaustively details Davis’ rise up the ranks of Columbia Records in the early 1960s and his formation of Arista Records in the 1970s and J Records in the 2000s. Davis’ business executive voice is clear, commanding, given to releasing precise sales figures, chart positions and Grammys won, and thus perfectly suited for stockholders’ meetings and business classes.

Davis is responsible for the bottom line: making hits. Hits keep label presidents in office, and Davis, 80, has been in one major label office or another for 53 years. But Soundtrack ultimately keeps spinning the same tale: Davis knows best, and when pop singers are pliable and do as he tells them, they succeed. When they question his authority, they invariably stumble.

Soundtrack is full of repetitious stories about such headstrong artists as Taylor Dayne, Melissa Manchester and Kelly Clarkson, who stumbled after failing to heed his advice, or artists such as Barry Manilow, who soared when they acquiesced. Davis practically gloats when retelling their rise-and fall stories. Clarkson, he writes, burst into “hysterical sobbing” when he wouldn’t let her delete two songs from her second album, Since U Been Gone and Behind These Hazel Eyes. The songs, presented to her by Davis, became signature hits for the American Idol winner. “[T]he Breakaway album sold nearly 12 million copies worldwide. It would have sold about 20 percent of that if I had agreed to take off the songs that Kelly told me point-blank to my face that she hated and wanted removed.”

Emboldened by success, Clarkson insisted on writing songs for her third album, My December. The songs were dreary, Davis told the artist. “You’re following up a giant worldwide album, and your entire arena tour will be in instant jeopardy if you don’t come out of the gate with big hits,” he told her.

Clarkson ignored the advice, and My December sold far less than Breakaway. “[I]t was a tremendous drop from Breakaway’s six-times-platinum sales in the United States. Kelly’s arena tour had to be totally scrapped,” Davis writes.

Manilow, according to Davis, was insulted when Davis presented him with Bruce Johnston’s I Write the Songs — which became a major hit. When Manilow, who did write many hits of his own, complained, Davis responded, “Well, if you were Irving Berlin, we would know it by now.”

Yet Davis initially earned critics’ respect for being instrumental in the early careers of Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Santana, Simon & Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen while he was the head of Columbia Records in the 1960s until 1973. At age 35, with a law degree and the keys to Columbia, he signed Joplin after catching her band’s incendiary set at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

“I was simply there as a spectator, and I didn’t really know what I was doing or what to expect,” he writes. But he also earns scorn from critical types who note that his single-minded focus on hits often comes at the expense of an artist’s musical integrity.

The music he made with then-commercially struggling acts he revived on Arista or J — Aretha Franklin, Santana, Rod Stewart — seldom challenged those artists to do their best work. Though the albums they released under Davis’ direction were often popular, the mogul writes that he told Whitney Houston she was in the tradition of jazz interpreters like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan when she broached the subject of writing songs. But few would seriously evaluate the slick, mainstream pop/R&B music he found for Houston as being at the level of the work of those greats.

The most engaging parts of Soundtrack are the early chapters that trace Davis’ childhood struggles, his rise and fall at Columbia and brilliant building of Arista. Davis narrates his story with a crisp command of language. But readers who desire a juicier telling of Davis’ personal story — the late revelation that the twice-divorced father of four is bisexual is especially awkwardly told — may be disappointed. Soundtrack could have used one of Davis’ beloved big, grabby hooks for mass appeal.

Howard Cohen is a Miami Herald staff writer. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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