What Moves Clive Davis

What Moves Clive Davis

Which of the following musicians does not belong with the others?

Janis Joplin. Bob Dylan. Whitney Houston. Barry Manilow.

Carlos Santana. The Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, Alicia Keys, Patti Smith, Notorious B.I.G.

Answer: they all belong together. They have been together – under the same umbrella – because of the man featured in this edition of CNN Profiles.

Clive Davis is that man.

Nobody would ever have pegged a young Clive Davis as destined for a career in the music industry.

Although he enjoyed singing and was a member of the glee club in college, he had no particular musical training. And his tastes as a young man were, as he describes them, quite conventional. This man, who is now in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame did not like rock when it first came out.

As a boy, Clive Davis loved school. So much so that his mother would urge him to study a little less get out more to play and socialize. People skills were just as important as book smarts she’d tell him.

Davis tells us he did not dream big. But he had drive. He had to. Both his parents died when he was a freshman in college. Davis had no money. But those book smarts got him full scholarships to NYU and then Harvard Law School.

And the academic diligence combined with the people skills encouraged by his mother, would eventually make for a powerful combination.

In the 1960s, one job well done led to another, until Davis found himself running Columbia Records, which was in pretty bad financial shape.

And then, a moment of serendipity that changed his life.

Clive Davis heard an unknown singer named Janis Joplin.

He found her “mesmerizing” and set out to sign her.

He was prepared to pay 25,000 dollars – more than double the going rate to sign new artists.

In the end he had to lay out ten times that amount to get Joplin and her band – 250,000 dollars. Small change now. A big risk then.

And with that bold move, which he describes in his new book “The Soundtrack of My Life,” began the ascent of Clive Davis – from the helm of Columbia Records – to founding his own label, Arista – to making waves in the world of hip-hop by financing a confident young producer named Sean Puffy Combs who dreamed of getting hip-hop onto the Top 40 charts.

By clicking the play icon above on this edition of CNN Profiles, you can hear Clive Davis explain in colorful detail the approach that has made him such a force in American music.

“From the very beginning,” Davis tells us, “I didn’t specialize. From the very beginning, I approached music just being open to what moved me.”

As he turns 81, Clive Davis still has his ears open for the next thing that moves him.


Michael Schulder: From a Researcher at ABC News; To a Writer at The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour on PBS; To my five years as a Writer for Peter Jennings at ABC World News Tonight; And 17 years as a Senior Executive Producer at CNN.


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