Clive Davis’ name is a synonym for the ultimate record man.
In terms of success, influence, longevity, and the artists and executives he has mentored, he has no peer and probably never will. To give just one example, in 1972 he told a young Bruce Springsteen that the debut album he’d just submitted didn’t have any songs that would get played on the radio. Dejected but determined, that night Springsteen wrote “Spirit in the Night” and “Blinded by the Light” — and thanks Davis to this day for the tough love that spawned those two now-classics.
But that story and many others have been told countless times over the course of Davis’ 60-plus-year career, in two autobiographies, a documentary film and thousands of interviews. So for his 90th birthday, we took a different approach and spoke with 25 or so executives who were employed by Davis over the years — ranging from Ron Alexenburg, who worked with him in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, to Sarah Weinstein Dennison, who joined his team in 2004 and is on the clock for his superstar-studded 90th birthday celebration tonight in New York City. (Apologies and no offense intended to those we didn’t speak with: We could have done an equally comprehensive article with at least five different sets of alums.)
In the amazing, inspiring and often hilarious stories below, what emerges is not a different Clive Davis, but a different side of him: his generosity in sharing his wisdom and knowledge, his leadership by example, his tireless effort to keep up with the times in both art and commerce, and perhaps most of all, his respect and desire for the opinions of others, especially young people — and not having any hesitation to incorporate their ideas into a larger plan. That in itself is the mark of someone with true confidence in their opinions, rather than an insecure person who refuses to admit that there could be a different or better way than the one they’ve chosen.
Because so much has been said about him by Bruce and Barry and Paul and Patti and Aretha and Alicia and so many others, we focused on the executives, whose stories illuminate the culture and work environment that helped artists create music that would change the world — the legendary, hours-long, intense meetings, where the food was served by butlers and looking at phones was frowned upon; the love of music and the relentless analysis of what makes it great, or could make it even better; and how best to bring that music to the world. But it’s not all executives: We also have cameos from Carlos Santana, Rob Thomas, songwriter Diane Warren and producer-songwriter Narada Michael Walden.
Separately, we also spoke with the man himself about working with artists and mentoring executives, the philosophy behind those meetings, and got some classic “Clive-isms” along the way — you can read that article here.
Davis spent the first three decades of his career at two companies: Columbia Records from 1960 through 1973, then his own Arista Records until 2000. He spent much of the fourth decade as a rock in a stormy sea while a corporate battle tried and failed to best him, with only his job titles and company names changing: his business cards sprawled across what was formerly the Sony-BMG Music Group, comprising those companies as well as RCA Records and his own J Records, until he was named chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment in 2008, a role he continues to hold. (Consequently, the executives below — many of whom accompanied him on that ride — are identified by top titles and Clive years, rather than company years.)
So read on — and on and on — for a rare view of a unique and truly revolutionary record man.
Interviews by Jem Aswad, Shirley Halperin, Leena Tailor, Roy Trakin and Chris Willman.
Charles Goldstuck, president J/RCA, 2000-2008: We were brainstorming the set-up of Alicia Keys’ first album, “Songs in A Minor.” We all believed that her first single, “Fallin’,” could be an all-timer, and we were chasing our tails trying to come up with “the idea.” Clive was quietly taking it all in and did not say much for most of the meeting.
Then he simply said, “I am going to write to Oprah and ask her to host the brightest of the new soul and R&B prospects on her show, even though she never showcases new artists. Then the world will hear what we hear.” So he wrote, recommending that she host Alicia, India.Arie, Jill Scott and Yolanda Adams on her show. Oprah immediately agreed, Alicia broke in a big way from the show, and the rest is history.
Clive was never willing to give up. No matter how tough or intractable a problem was, he always believed that there was solution. He would fight for the solution until he had it.
Ron Alexenburg, senior VP promotion/ general manager, 1967-1973: He already knew my name, before I could even introduce myself: “I know who you are, Ron Alexenburg. You’re a promotion man and a good one.” I couldn’t believe Clive Davis knew who I was.
Mika El-Baz, executive VP media strategy, 2004-2021: Clive has a memory like a steel trap — he forgets nothing.
Stacy Carr, special event producer, 1991-present: The sign of a good leader is retaining relationships over the years. I’ve never seen anyone have more close friendships and colleagues, that he keeps in touch with regularly, than Clive. I believe that I hold the record as Clive’s longest employed staff member at 32 years straight.
Phil Quartararo, senior VP promotion, 1985-1986: One of my very first assignments as president of Warner Bros. Records was to help complete the “City of Angels” soundtrack, and the film’s producer desperately wanted the song “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan, who was, of course, an Arista artist. After several failed attempts to license the song from the label, I was elected by the team to call Clive, because of my time at Arista, and ask for sync approval. In a long and nervous — on my end — conversation, Clive told me how much he loved the song and made me agree to a list of terms before we could license the song. For Clive, the music always comes first. He’s very protective that way.
Liz Morentin, VP media relations, 2001-2008: I remember walking a reporter into Clive’s Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow for a meeting. Clive had a bunch of magazine articles pulled or printed with post-it notes, red ink, and circles throughout the pages: He knew exactly what the reporter had written about him and our artists and wanted to discuss what they got right, and what they maybe didn’t get so right. No one does their homework like Clive.
Dick Wingate, SVP marketing, 1994-1996: His attention to detail is unparalleled, he’s hands-on all the way down to revising ad copy and video edits. And he’s nearly always right.
Maureen Crowe, VP soundtrack A&R, 1992-99: I was in the studio with Babyface and Whitney, working out the arrangement for “The Preacher’s Wife.” As the session went into the night, Clive wanted to make sure I knew I could call him until 1 a.m. and as early as 5 a.m.
Larry Jackson, president A&R, 2000-2010: Four nights of the week, Monday through Thursday, Clive would call me, without fail, at around midnight to discuss Soundscan sales or radio airplay.
Roy Lott, executive VP/general manager, 1979-1998: My first “full experience” with Clive was in March of 1980 with Air Supply, the Australian duo of Russell Hitchcock and Graham Russell. Arista had picked up the rights to “Lost in Love,” the lead single from the group’s fifth Australian album, and we were having success at Top 40 radio. Clive decided to exercise our option to record additional songs and release a full album. He called me at home and said the group needed work permits to fly from Australia to Los Angeles immediately, and that every day of delay would cost Arista millions of dollars. He repeated with emphasis the word millions, over and over, so that I would fully understand that there was nothing more important in my life or in anyone else’s life.
I booked them on an evening flight to Vancouver, and then, when U.S. passport offices opened the following day, secured the necessary work permits so they could board a flight to L.A. Upon arrival, Clive had them re-record “All Out of Love” — with a revised lyrical hook written by Clive — and “Every Woman in the World,” both of which became Top 5 singles and established Air Supply as a multi-platinum act.
Abbey Konowitch, senior VP artist development & video, 1978-1988: I received a late-night phone call from a friend who was managing George Michael, saying that George wanted to become a more serious artist. After “I Want Your Sex” went No. 1 at pop, he wanted a No. 1 R&B record. His team wanted to see if I could put Aretha together with George, who got on the phone telling me how important it was to him.
I immediately went to see Clive at about 9 p.m., which was regular working hours for him. Within 15 minutes George was on the phone with Clive. When Clive asked him if he had a song, George said that he had hoped Clive could help him find one, which is just what was needed to set him in motion.
When they hung up, Clive called Tom Sturges at Chrysalis Music Publishing and told him he was looking for a “River Deep Mountain High”-type song for George Michael and Aretha Franklin to sing. Tom said he thought he might have just the right song, and sent it overnight to Clive. The next morning, we all heard “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me.” Clive was the best at casting the right song, message, and feel that composed the soundtrack of our times.
Carlos Santana, artist: Even before I joined his party in 1968-1969, Clive Davis, to me, always represented a person who had his finger on the pulse. He knew what artist was going to blossom worldwide. He knew, musically, which person was going to be the next river that was going to find the ocean. Clive was one of the reasons [Santana’s 1970 album] “Abraxas” was so easy to make and so successful: He trusted us to touch people’s hearts and allowed us to make the record we were manifesting. Later, with [1999’s] “Supernatural,” he asked me, “Do you have the willingness to discipline yourself and get in the ring with me, to work together when I start calling everybody in my Rolodex? Will you trust me?” I feel really grateful that he invested his trust and his belief in me emotionally.
Keith Naftaly, senior VP A&R, 1995-2004: Clive-isms: Lyrics are everything — in fact, he will not listen to a song without a lyric sheet. Respect the copyright. Focus on the storytelling. Every legitimate music submission deserves a reply, because these are ambitious people with big dreams: Be respectful and let them down easy with your candid feedback. This was known as “the polite pass letter” — an actual reflection of Clive’s oft-overlooked empathy and kindness, alongside the competitive “you never know” factor, because their next submission might be a breakout hit single for Whitney Houston.
Maureen Crowe: I remember [producer] David Foster being furious at first that Clive had released the board mix of “I Will Always Love You” as the single — but when the song ended, he said, “Watch it be a big hit.”
Diane Warren, songwriter: There is no executive in the music business, nor will there ever be, who loves songs and songwriters like Clive Davis. I’ve sat in the room and watched him have tears in his eyes because a song I wrote touched him so deeply. I have the career I have today because of the times he fought for artists to record my songs. I love and respect him beyond words.
I have a lot of favorite memories, but here’s a funny one. Clive wanted to meet with me and I told him I had a shrink appointment till 10 of 5 [o’clock]. He started laughing uncontrollably because he thought I had said from 10 till 5! I said “Clive, I’m crazy but I’m not that crazy!”
Rob Stone, VP crossover promotion, 1994-1996: I had just started at Arista, it was my first week, and I hadn’t met Clive yet. So I get called up to his office — I didn’t know if that was routine or not, but Rose [Marino, Davis’ decades-long executive assistant] says, “Oh! New guy gets called in!” I’m like 24 and it’s Clive Davis, so I go in with Rick [Bisceglia, head of promotion], and Clive starts telling this story.
He says, “You know, yesterday I get a call, and Rose tells me Rob Stone is on the phone. So I pick up, and I hear your assistant say ‘Please hold for Rob,’ and I’m waiting and waiting, thinking, ‘What’s with this new guy? Do I hang up?’” Clive is telling this story and I’m freaking out thinking, “Oh my God, what did I do?” He goes on, “Finally, Rob Stone gets on the phone and starts talking about Bonnie Raitt — and I’m very confused, but then I realize it’s Ron Stone,” who was Bonnie Raitt’s manager. I was so relieved! It was a fun introduction and it showed that he could laugh at the situation.
Chris Chambers, senior VP media relations & artist development, 2001-2006: You told your assistant to always pick up the phone — you do not let Clive go to voicemail.
Liz Morentin: Early on, I took Clive to a talk show for an interview — it was one of the first times I was out with him, so I was a bit nervous. The interview went well but the producer decided, spur of the moment, that he wanted him to stay for the next bit, which was a bathroom-humor type of comedian. So I walked up onstage and whispered in Clive’s ear, “It’s time to go.” The producer followed us around the building, telling Clive all about what they wanted to do — the show was just launching at the time — and trying to show him different parts of the studio. When we finally made it to his limo, Clive turned to me, grabbed both of my hands, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You are very, very good.” No executive says that!
Rob Stone: I remember when Bad Boy Records was first launching and we were sitting in the big Thursday staff meeting, Clive said [Sean “Puff Daddy”/“Diddy” Combs] wanted a billboard on Sunset Blvd. L.A. was very important, and that was his mentality: “If I’m gonna do this, I’m going big.” But the billboard was like $50,000 a month, which was a shitload of money at the time. So Clive opened it up for discussion and a lot of the executives in finance were like, “We shouldn’t do this.” At the end of the discussion, Clive said, “Well, maybe we just have to trust the creator. If he wants the billboard and says he must have it, then that’s what we do.” And we did! It would have been so easy to say no, but Clive saw the value in Puff’s passion.
Tom Corson, executive VP/general manager, 1999-2011: Busta Rhymes wanted Clive to record a voiceover for his “Genesis” album, and I remember sitting in his office while Clive worked on the script. It’s a rare moment of an artist and an executive truly collaborating — and it’s hysterical!
“You told your assistant to always pick up the phone — you do not let Clive go to voicemail.” — Chris Chambers
Lois Najarian O’Neill, senior VP media, 2000-2003: The best memories are the legendary pre-Grammy parties — not just the mind-blowing red-carpet walks and his unstoppable stamina throughout the event, but the late nights in his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, moving tiny magnets labeled with the most famous people in the world on a whiteboard seating chart.
Stacy Carr: During one memorable Pre-Grammy Gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the fire marshall shut us down mid-show to reconfigure the room because we had too many people. Clive and I sit together side-stage during the performances, so we were trying to organize the staff and execute direction during a stressful moment and get the show back on track. The show did go on once we rearranged the seating and had tables removed, all while Robin Williams volunteered a hilarious impromptu stand-up from the crowd. Clive always teases me that he gave me black-and-blues that night from holding onto my arm.
Keith Naftaly: Puff was playing the new 112 album for Clive and myself. It was just the three of us until TLC pulled up for a now-infamous spontaneous visit [an oft-misreported incident in which the R&B trio demanded money they felt was owed them, a situation Davis defused]. Clive’s warmth, sincerity and even temperament skillfully, strategically and respectfully resolved an intricate scenario with a precision that blew my mind.
Pete Ganbarg, senior director of A&R/ consultant, 1997-2001/ 2004-2008: We were finishing the Santana “Supernatural” record, and there’s a song on the album that’s a collaboration with the artist Everlast called “Put Your Lights On.” Everlast was really big at the time — he was in New York doing “Saturday Night Live.” His manager, who is a good friend to this day, calls me and says, “Hey, we changed our mind, we’re going to hold the song for Everlast’s next record, we don’t want Santana to do it.” And I say, “No, you don’t understand. I’ve already made Clive this promise, Carlos likes the song, you can’t do that.” He says, “No, we’re gonna keep the song, I’ve gotta go to ‘SNL’ soundcheck,” and he hangs up. Fuck! And this is Friday night at around 6:30, 7 o’clock.
So I go to Clive’s office and he’s leaving — he’s literally in the elevator about to go down. I say, “Clive I’ve got a problem, can I talk to you?” As the elevator doors are closing, he says “No!” So I immediately take the next elevator down, his car and driver are waiting, and also in the car is Clive’s dog, Sammy — yes, Sammy Davis, I think it was a cocker spaniel. I’m explaining to Clive what is going on, with this guy basically holding us hostage and saying he’s going to take the song back. Clive says, “Give me his number.”
He calls him and says, “Hello? This is Clive Davis. Do you know who I am?” And I hear the guy over the phone, “Did Pete tell you to call me? Is he with you?” And Clive looks at me with his finger over his lips — “Ssh!” — meanwhile, Sammy is licking my face and I’m having a hard time not laughing. Clive says, “Look. You say you know who I am? Maybe you want to think before taking the song back. And I’ll just leave it at that.” He hangs up, and the next day we had the song back.
Mark Young, VP media & TV promotion, 1992-2002: Every Thursday, we would have a company meeting that was required attendance by all department heads and the A&R team. The temperature in the room required a winter jacket, even during the summer months. Lunch was served on china, a formal setting with silverware and gloved wait staff. It was a sacred ritual, and you came prepared.
When there was a new single or album to be presented at the luncheon, he would pass out the lyric sheets and read sections as if they were poetry, then play the song. The music would play at high volume and Clive would have his eyes closed and point his finger in the air on beat. His passion for every note was infectious.
Larry Jackson: We’d listen to music so loudly that I’ve surely lost a few decibel levels of my hearing. We’d flash discreet baseball signals back and forth to each other to communicate our thoughts on what was playing.
Stacy Carr: During one meeting while I was pregnant, the music was so loud that my baby was dancing to the beat and visibly bouncing around.
Chris Chambers: That meeting could go on for three or four hours, or even longer. Clive would go down the list of current priorities, records that were just finished along with the ones that were currently on the chart; we went through PR, marketing, artist development, all of it. Music and videos were played, TV performances, press. Every department wanted to be sure they were seen and felt, so it was a little competitive; you’d be beating your chest because that was what Clive wanted to hear and it’s going to make him feel good and it’s going to make you shine in the room. It was heavy like that. And then there were times where if you didn’t have it together, you were reminded that you needed to come back stronger.
Roy Lott: Because of his intelligence and legal training, Clive’s meetings were focused on “cross examining” what was happening with every current record.
Ken Levy, senior VP creative services, 1981-2000: I was always in awe of the tremendous amount of research Clive did prior to that week’s luncheon. He would review the latest Soundscan numbers on every one of our active records, and knew exactly what stations went up or down in rotations and the complete sales picture. He was well-prepared and he expected you to be equally prepared.
Mika El -Baz: There have been so many occasions when I’ve had Clive’s voice in my head: “Preparation, preparation, preparation.”
Chris Chambers: It was formal seating, we all had place cards with our names on them, and you kind of knew where they would normally seat you. But it would shift sometimes — “Okay, what does that mean?” It might be due to a new person starting, or if Clive was focused on a particular area. If one department wasn’t bringing it home, you’d see them closer to him: “I’m going to deal with you.” Sitting in those meetings, you felt honored and also a little nervous. It actually felt like you were part of some private club.
Richard Palmese, executive VP promotion 1975-’84/ 1996-2011: I remember walking into one meeting and there was Paul Simon. Another time I was called up to Clive’s office, and there was Prince.
Melinda Kelly, VP production 1998-2005: He kept the room around a crisp 55 degrees, so you always needed to bring a sweater or jacket. I’m sure he thought it kept us alert, but it really just made us miserable and cold (laughs). However, it was an incredible graduate school that I was fortunate to attend each week.
Mitchell Cohen, VP A&R, 1977-1983: Clive has zero patience for restlessness and inattention during his marathon presentations. At Arista conventions, no matter how fatigued or flattened you were from the night before, he expected you to match his level of enthusiasm. The lesson was: Listen up, this is why we come to work every day.
Sarah Weinstein Dennison, senior VP publicity, 2004-2022: The meetings were so focused, it was like a lesson. People had microphones, it was like you were onstage. I learned not to look at my phone, not to worry about what’s going on in the world and pay attention, listen to the lyrics and the meaning of the song and the artist. You had to be game-on every day — you can’t just be a fan, you have to know exactly why you like or don’t like something.
Rob Stone: He’d play everything from nine-minute dance mixes to dub mixes to Diane Warren songs. He would always play the whole thing and go around the room and ask your opinion: “Who should sing this? Is this for Usher? Tony Rich? Toni Braxton?” I think what’s so incredible about Clive’s mind is the confidence he has in his own ears, but he’s still open to all suggestions; he almost scientifically would look at things through other people’s eyes. He would get a very disparate and diverse audience in his office and talk through all these mixes. And you couldn’t just give him fluff — you really had to give him your opinions. I’ve never seen anyone operate like that in music, taking input from everyone and then making decisions that in retrospect were the best decisions.
Steve Bartels, EVP promotion & special markets, 1992-2004: Whether it Whitney Houston or a then-new artist like the Notorious B.I.G., that luncheon heard the music in its entirety.
Pete Ganbarg: If there was as an emergency, one of the tuxedoed waiters would come over, tap you on the shoulder and hand you a note. Once when we were getting toward the end of the “Supernatural” record, it was getting a little intense — I had like 15 different producers and 15 different songwriters and 15 different studio sessions. One of the producers had a gangster mentality — we won’t name names, but he was a loose cannon. So I’m sitting in this meeting and my shoulder gets tapped by one of the tuxedoed waiters and I get a note that says, “If [this producer] doesn’t get his fucking money in the next hour he’s not going to the studio and you can go fuck yourself!” And I look up and there’s Clive, who has no idea what the note says, talking about why we’re down seven spins in Des Moines on this or that artist. We figured it out with the producer — after the meeting.
Ken Levy: Once, there was a particularly long luncheon that fell on the eve of Passover and I had to get to Queens for a seder. I kept looking at my watch, wondering how long this marathon was going to last and thinking about how late I was running. Finally, in front of everyone, Clive said, “We have to wrap this up, Ken keeps looking at his watch.” I said, “I wasn’t looking at what time it is, I was looking at what day it is!” The room went silent — until Clive started laughing and then everyone joined in.
Rob Stone: I had season tickets to see the Knicks on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I cannot tell you how many games where I had to meet a friend there in the third quarter because Clive would call a mandatory 6 p.m. meeting to play songs and mixes. It could go on for hours, and you had to cancel whatever you had planned.
Melani Rogers, VP publicity, 1976-1992: Clive always wanted to know what writers were coming to our showcases and what reviewers were saying about our albums — and you had better come into the luncheon meeting prepared to give him the complete breakdown. Arista had press darlings like Patti Smith, Lou Reed and the Kinks, but not all of our roster’s artists were critics’ favorites. Publicity was as much in his sights as promotion or sales, and having such a press-conscious boss definitely upped the pressure in meetings, but learning the music PR game at Arista prepared me as I went on to my next jobs. Clive’s expectations set the bar very high.
Chris Chambers: One time we were talking about Fantasia, this was just after her success on “American Idol,” and he was complaining about something she did and he said, “Betty Grable [a major 1930s-1940s movie star] would never do anything like that!” and everybody’s looking around the room like “Who’s Betty Grable?”
Keith Naftaly: Our A&R meetings were lengthy and intense, serious and no-nonsense. The wider company meetings were more spirited, hyped-up and celebratory of the label’s success, but A&R meetings were sacred, secretive and often nerve-wracking, because Clive demanded excellence from us all — “laser-beam focus,” as he would say, and total honesty. But with music being subjective, the dialogue, though always cordial, could get heated and spicy. To ride the wave of opinion in the room for the sake of convenience when you thought otherwise was perceived by him as cowardly and “treating your job like a hobby.” I learned very quickly that A&R is combat, not for the timid, and requires thick skin.
Lois Najarian O’Neill: One of my favorite instructions from him was “Don’t be an ostrich.” I still use that today.
Pete Ganbarg: The A&R meetings are the stuff of legend because they were never scheduled — you’d suddenly get a call from Clive’s office, “A&R meeting in five minutes.” You’d have to cancel everything and you never knew how long those meetings were gonna be — you could literally be there until midnight with no breaks. But you’re watching him work, and you don’t even realize that, by osmosis, you’re learning what you’re learning. I sometimes look at him like the movie “The Karate Kid,” where you don’t realize what you’re being taught until you’re in the tournament. The phone calls that would come in — “Aretha line one, Whitney line two” — and we would all be in on the conversation. Let’s say he was on the phone with Aretha about a vocal she had cut. She would say, “What do you mean about the second line of the bridge, how do you want me to do it?” and he would look at all of us and mime “Give me your notes” and get the room’s feeling. He wasn’t asking our opinion to form his opinion — he already had his opinion — but we were representing the audience, and he wanted to know what the audience thought.
Rob Thomas, artist: If I go in to play him a song I’m working on, he’ll play 10 other songs he’s working on for other artists, just because he wants an artist’s opinion. He’d be like, “As you know Rob, Whitney and I are coming together to try and recreate the magnificent success we’ve had in the past,” and then I’m just sitting there listening to history being made. He lets you feel like you’re part of it.
“I learned very quickly that A&R is combat, not for the timid, and requires thick skin.” — Keith Naftaly
Chris Chambers: Sometimes it wouldn’t even be a question about your job: “Chris, what do you think about this new single?” I think that was the only area where we were cautious, because unless you’re A&R or radio you don’t really want to sit there telling him, “Eh, I think it’s okay.” Because you’re dealing with Clive Davis!
Rob Stone: You had to bring your A-game to that meeting, it was so in-depth and you had to be prepared — so prepared that Rick [Bisceglia] would do a pre-game with the staff before the lunch. There was a booklet of each artist’s singles sales in each market and how they correlated to airplay — in, say, San Diego, where Z90 is, Deborah Cox’s single sales could have jumped but your airplay might have gone down, and you’d know that Clive was going to circle that in the report and bring it up.
He was pushing hard on [R&B singer] Deborah Cox, and he focused in on me: The single was Top 10 in New York but I could not get Hot 97 to play it. Clive went into a five-minute diatribe about “How can the station not be playing it, look at the sales and momentum!” He was dressing me down in the meeting and I was getting so frustrated. But then he said, “Doesn’t he get it?” And I said, “No, Clive, he doesn’t get it!,” and everyone looked at me. Clive just said, “Well why didn’t you say so?”
Chris Chambers: He’s not a yeller, always a gentleman, but you knew … there were always marching orders and you did not want to disappoint. But if, for example, a TV booker was hesitating on something, speak on it and let the room know, because Clive himself may do the call.
Mitchell Cohen: Every once in a while he would play a new record, and you knew in your bones that within weeks or months, that song would be everywhere and you were among the first lucky people to hear it: Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” Aretha’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around the World.” Then he would play it again, because he wanted to make sure you realized how rare this experience was.
Peter Edge, president A&R; CEO RCA Records, 1996-present: I was in for a major learning curve when I first began working with Clive. His mastery of matching artists with material was unprecedented.
Rob Thomas: I had written a song that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do or not, and I thought maybe I’d give it to somebody else. And Clive was like, “Rob, if you have a great song, you want to put out that great song. You don’t ever want to die with the good songs in your pocket.”
Pete Ganbarg: In my job interview with Clive, he’d play me a song. “What do you think?” “I like it!” “That song will never be a hit. Let me play you another song.” “I don’t like it.” “That was a number-one record you just passed on.” And this went on for three hours! I got called back for a second meeting and the same thing happened. I’d put together tapes for him and he’d say, “I don’t know what’s going on with your tapes, one song goes this way and another song goes that way.” For some reason that I don’t understand to this day, he hired me.
Larry Jackson: What I could previously feel intuitively and identify, he gave me the education, the tools and the skillset to put that intuition into the words of why. He taught me the science of what makes a hit a hit — a focus on the substantive nature of a lyric, or captivating sway of a melody. He understands how to articulate the science of that cheat code better than any record executive I’ve ever met.
Sarah Weinstein Dennison: He not only taught me the why, but how to explain it — not just “I love this, you have to hear it,” but “This is why you have to hear it.” How to know what the story is by listening to the lyrics and understanding the artist’s proposition. He always spoke about that: What is this person about? What is their music about? What are we trying to present to those fans, or how do we create those fans? When he really loves something, it’s inspiring.
“Clive was, like, ‘You don’t ever want to die with the good songs in your pocket.’” — Rob Thomas
Tom Sturges, Arista Music Publishing, 1980-1983: A month into my career in the music business, working as a secretary, I bumped into Clive walking down the hallway. He said, “If you hear any good songs, please send them to me.” So it began: Carly Simon, Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin, Taylor Dane, Whitney Houston, Aretha and George Michael all recorded songs sent by me or my teams.
Mitchell Cohen: On the debut album from the Jeff Healey Band — one of my first artist signings — there was a track, John Hiatt’s “Angel Eyes,” that I thought might be a rock-to-pop crossover single. Clive wasn’t so sure: It didn’t have enough guitar or sound like a radio mix. I was dispatched to Toronto for a day, we did guitar overdubs — begrudgingly, in Jeff’s case — and a new mix, and I flew back the next morning. The new version got applause at the Friday meeting, became a Top 5 pop hit, and pushed the album to platinum. Clive knew it wasn’t right before, and now it was. At other companies, the arguments might be about release dates, fiscal quarters, budgets. Any disagreements I ever had with Clive were, “Is this artist a star? Is this the right edit? Does it need remastering?” It was only ever about music.
Narada Michael Walden, songwriter-producer: On our first phone call, I had just released “Let Me Be Your Angel” for Stacy Lattisaw. Clive asked where I was from, how I made that kind of sound. He said he’d like me produce some of his artists: “How about Aretha Franklin?”
He said to give her a call, and on that phone call Aretha told me what she did to have fun. “I go to a nightclub, see a guy in the corner looking at me, and I go, ‘Who’s zoomin’ who?’” So I wrote that down, and then she laughed, “He thinks he’s got me, but then the fish jumps off the hook!” Preston Glass and I wrote the song, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?,” then we came with “Freeway of Love,” and the next album had “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me).”
Chris Chambers: When I told Clive and Charles [Goldstuck] I wasn’t going to renew my contract, I thought they’d say, “Okay, when would you like to finish?” But they made me work to the very end of my contract, which wasn’t up for almost a year. Even though it was a little awkward, they showed me so much support, because they created a consulting deal for me, and I left with so much business that that’s how my company started — I hadn’t even planned on forming my own company. Fifteen years later, the Chamber Group is still doing amazing things, and it only happened because they gave me so much business when I left.
Pete Ganbarg: Toward the end of my second tenure with Clive, I got offered this [current] job, to be the head of A&R at Atlantic, and I decided to take it. He said, “I totally understand, but let’s finish these projects together.” The final one was a Kelly Clarkson album, and I’d found a song that Ryan Tedder had written and sent it to Clive. At this point I’ve literally got one foot out the door — it might even have been my last day.
He calls me and says, “I got your song. Have you heard it?” And I realize he’s playing with me. “Yes Clive, I’ve heard it.” “Have you looked at the lyrics?” “Yes, I’ve looked at the lyrics.” “And you don’t see the problem?” “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is.” He says, “Can you come into my office? I wanna talk to you about this.” I’m in New Jersey packing boxes, but okay. I drive in, go to his office, he’s got the lyric sheet on his desk. “Let me explain to you why these lyrics don’t work.” It was a bittersweet love song called “Already Gone.” He says, “There’s a difference between something bittersweet and something bitter.” He had circled six words on the lyric sheet. “If we change these six words, the song goes from bitter to bittersweet and becomes a hit record.”
I looked, “Okay, yeah, I don’t disagree.” We called Ryan, “Yeah, that makes sense,” he went in and changed it, and the song became a hit. And as I’m walking out of there, it was like Clive was [quoting] this line to me that I heard in a movie a long time ago: “Okay big shot, head of A&R at Atlantic Records, I may have taught you everything you know. But I haven’t taught you everything that I know.”
Larry Jackson: As any great professor would, Clive oftentimes corrected a misspelled word in a memo, or criticized an improper usage of the “flying apostrophe” or misusage of a word or term that is often used but doesn’t really exist, like “I’m in agreeance.”
Sarah Weinstein Dennison: He had this elegant vase of all the same kind of blue pens, and when I would send him a press release [for approval] he would walk it back with edits, all these blue lines and notes. One day it came back with a check or a “Nice job” at the bottom and no blue lines — and I almost started to cry. Yes, he wanted the impossible, he wanted perfection, but it made us all better.
Chris Chambers: I learned that you can do the job and be effective without lowering yourself or compromising your manner and your beliefs. The industry sometimes has a way of propping up the bad boys because there’s this notion that they get it done. Sure, he had moments of not being pleased, but he was always a gentleman.
As a young Black man coming up in the business — well, I wasn’t that young — it gave me a boost and power, and that doesn’t always happen. I’m very grateful because Clive believed in me. I had worked hard and was being rewarded by the king.
Pete Ganbarg: You may not love every minute of the process, but when you come out on the other side, you’re much better at your job. I would not be here if it were not for Clive. If I had never met him, my life would be so much poorer in so many ways.
Keith Naftaly: Summer of 1995, my first day at Arista. In the spirit of over-achieving and being extra-prepared from the jump, I stayed at the office late — so late that I’d lost track of time, it was 1:30 a.m. and I was locked in the building. The only home phone number I had was Clive’s. I flinched, braced myself and dialed. He picked up after one ring, very much awake. He was so chill and understanding. “I’m catching up on all the charts and going through my huge stack of papers, like I do every night. Don’t worry, I’ll walk right over and open the building.”
And sure enough, 15 minutes later, there’s Clive Davis, still in his crisp suit, coming to the rescue. Suddenly, the elevators were operating! We rode down from the ninth floor and exited the building. I thanked him, he took a right on West 57th and I took a left.
I glanced back over my shoulder and Clive was walking in the middle of the street on his way to Park Avenue, like he was king of Manhattan. And to me, he certainly was.