Clive Davis Discusses ‘Gripping’ Documentary ‘Soundtrack of Our Lives,’ Prince and Working With Geniuses

"It's not sugar-coated — this is very real and gripping," the legendary record man says

Clive Davis
Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

There have been many great “record men” since the advent of what we now know as popular music, but there’s only one Clive Davis.

His story has been told many times, not least in the documentary, “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives,” which was directed by Chris Perkel and premieres at Radio City Music Hall as part of the Tribeca Film Festival Wednesday night. Davis, now 85, began his career as an attorney and was hired by Columbia Records, a client of the firm for which he worked, in 1960. He rose through the ranks and was appointed president of the label in 1967, and shortly afterward experienced an epiphany at the Monterey Pop Festival (the 50th anniversary of which is coming up in June), coming away with not just a vision of the burgeoning rock revolution, but also a contract for Janis Joplin. In the half century since then — at Columbia, the two labels he founded, Arista and J, and his current role as chief creative officer for Sony Music — he’s directed or had a strong hand in the careers of Sly and the Family Stone, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Alicia Keys, Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, The Kinks, Lou Reed, Dionne Warwick, Carly Simon, and many others; via deals with L.A. Reid and Babyface’s LaFace Records and Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy, he’s also been connected with Outkast, TLC, Usher, Pink, and The Notorious B.I.G.

It hasn’t all been glory: In the mid-1970s he was fired from Columbia amid allegations of payola and misuse of funds (which he contests), and he had another battle 25 years later when Bertelsmann, Arista’s parent company, attempted to kick him upstairs due to a company rule about staffers who reached the age of 60 (Davis emerged with a new label, J, and much of his Arista staff and roster). And there was the tragedy of Whitney Houston, perhaps the artist with whom he’s most closely associated, who died in February 2012, on the day of Davis’ famous annual pre-Grammy party, where she had performed and appeared many times.

It’s all in the documentary, which features more than 100 music cues and dozens of interviews with many of the artists and executives with whom he’s worked. The film’s premiere at Radio City will be followed by a concert featuring a cross-section of artists from his career: Franklin, Warwick, Simon, Manilow, Jennifer Hudson, and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Davis took the time to chat with Variety about the film and his career.

How involved were you in the making of the film?

The film was made by Ridley Scott’s firm [and director Chris Perkel]. I had nothing to do with it apart from sitting for an interview.

How did it feel to see you life laid out in documentary form?

Well, a lot of it is contained the interviews with those artists that I worked with in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and to relive my life through their eyes was quite emotional. The detail that each of them went through was very touching and very important to me.

Was any of it difficult to watch?

Yeah, there are some quite revealing and compelling scenes in the Whitney Houston segment — to see how brilliant and special Whitney was. It’s not sugar-coated — this is very real and gripping. I’ve seen it with a group of people and there’s no question it’s emotionally affecting — their reaction has been incredibly gratifying.

Do you think it dealt fairly and accurately with some of the more challenging periods of your career, like your departures from Columbia and Arista?

I think it’s not only fair and accurate, but it’s compelling and sets the record straight. Not to give away any surprises in the film, but the two sections that you mention, one, when I was let go by Columbia, I think is presented absolutely factually and as gripping as any reality film. And the section portraying the mixed attitude of Bertelsmann — on the one hand they didn’t want to lose me, that’s clear, certainly: They had to pay $150 million to keep me, they had to give me platinum artists [like] Alicia Keys and they had to give me the 18 top executives of Arista. I was [bringing in] tens of millions of dollars a year, and they were trying to come up with a way that I could follow the Bertelsmann rule that when you’re past 60, you either become a corporate chairman or a consultant. They offered me the corporate worldwide creative chairman [role], but I was at the height of my career: It was right after [Santana’s] “Supernatural,” which sold 25 million worldwide, and “My Love Is Your Love” with Whitney. [The film] very much gets into the turmoil that was created and ultimately the solution.

Looking at the artists you’ve worked with over the course of your career, Patti Smith almost feels like an outlier, it seems like she was more confrontational than most of the artists you’d signed up to that point.

I worked with many rock artists over the years and Patti actually fits in beautifully. We have a wonderful relationship, as it’s made very clear in the film by artists, by Jimmy Iovine commenting as to how I dealt with Patti when he was producing her [1978 album “Easter”]. When I’m dealing with rock artists or self-contained artists like Alicia Keys, I’m definitely totally hands-off — I let their genius flourish. It’s only when you get into the pop side are artists that are dependent on [guidance]. Patti and I had and still have a very close relationship — she inducted me into the Rock Hall of Fame.

You released Prince’s “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic” album on Arista in 1999. What was it like working with him?

That was very much a one-album [deal] and we were just a distributor — he delivered a finished album, all done, and asked me to distribute it — so it was very different from the normal [label/artist] relationship, and I can’t really say I worked with him. But he and I had a terrific one-on-one relationship. He was fascinated by music [business] issues: authorship, ownership, copyright, compulsory licenses, and we spent hours talking about that because he felt he had met someone who understood those things. He was very educated about those things. He said our conversations [about business] were so great and educational that they should be sold as CDs! It was very warm — we hung out together during that period, we went to concerts.

Speaking of concerts, did you select the artists for tomorrow’s show after the film premiere?

No, I had nothing to do with it. I found out after the fact that Robert De Niro wrote letters to the artists. Doug [Davis, Clive’s son, an attorney who works on many of his projects] was involved administratively as a coordinator, but he and I had nothing to do with approaching the artists. Alicia wanted to be there but she had a conflict with “The Voice,” and Patti wanted to be a part of it but she’s in Australia. I’m very touched and thrilled that these artists are performing.

What music projects are you working on right now?

I’m co-producing a new Jennifer Hudson album with L.A. Reid and Chris Anokute. I’m looking for material for Avery Wilson, a 20-year-old artist who I think has a really spectacular voice. I want to make sure that current radio doesn’t disenfranchise the voice, in the sense that, yes, Adele has shown that a powerful voice coupled with good material is very unique, but I’m concerned that urban radio in the mainstream is so dominated by hip-hop, and as much as I admire hip-hop — I worked with Outkast and Bad Boy [Records] and going back, Gil Scott Heron — we have to be mindful we’re looking for the next Dylan, the next Springsteen, the next Whitney, the next Aretha. I’m gratified that they reward a great voice like Adele’s, when you have one, but as I said at my Grammy party two or three years ago, I told Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus that the next artist I introduced — Johnny Mathis — his greatest-hits album was on the Billboard charts for 10 consecutive years. He did a medley of his greatest hits and it led to a two-page headline in the Calendar section of the L.A. Times that said “Johnny Mathis explodes out of Clive’s party.” And because of that [Columbia and Sony Music CEOs] Rob Stringer and Doug Morris said to come up with a concept album [for Mathis], and the concept will be “The Great New American Songbook.”

You did four “Great American Songbook” albums of standards with Rod Stewart, so what time period is the new one?

We’re going to announce it in the next couple of weeks, but I can say it will be a lot of current material from the last year or two, and from the last 10-15 years.

Who are some artists today that you think are particularly great who you’re not working with?

Obviously Adele, and not just because she can sell out arena tours and has sold millions of albums. I enjoy Drake, I enjoy Ed Sheeran. But we need more artists where the public wants more than just to buy a single — we need more truly great artists, where the public isn’t satisfied with just a single.