Elder statesman: Still sweating the report cards

It’s good to be the king. Seven years ago, when Clive Davis was forced out of Arista Records — the label he ran since 1974 — in a bungled succession plan by BMG execs, few doubted he would return to the top of the record business.

But Davis’ subsequent meteoric rise from proprietor of startup J Records to running BMG’s North American operations has surprised both allies and enemies.

And although the smart money envisioned a post-Sony BMG merger scenario wherein the BMG brass would act as sacrificial lambs, Davis’ power was further solidified in June after the departure of three top Sony music execs, including Don Ienner — once a Davis protege during Arista’s early days.

At 74, the RCA Music Group chairman still commands lavish perks and incredible power. His annual Grammy party is the hottest ticket of that week — often eclipsing the ceremony itself with its A-list wattage. Yet, he has cultivated the persona of a music industry Everyman, a champion of unbridled creativity over corporate restraint.

When he was pushed from BMG, artists railed and rallied — some say at the cajoling of Davis. “Clive always wants to win,” says a rival label chief. “If that means working longer, paying a premium for deals, or getting artists to write letters to Vanity Fair, he’ll do it. Beneath that smiling grandfatherly facade is a warrior.”

In addition to Alicia Keys, Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow, Davis has shepherded successful albums from “American Idol” winners and runners-up plus actor-turned-crooner Jamie Foxx. Pearl Jam was recently inked to J Records, adding a credible rock act to the Davis portfolio.

“I love the creative process,” Davis says, “dealing with artists and their music, as well as the discovery process — finding an artist whose music ultimately gets heard around the world.

“I’ve been fortunate that the report cards continue to be good — and in this business you get one every week,” he adds, referring to sales charts.

“He has survived several career crises that would have buried other people,” notes veteran attorney Owen Sloane, “and he’s come back stronger than ever each time. It’s an amazing story of perseverance and survival.”

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