Clive Davis‘ new memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life, has been getting a lot of buzz lately. While many outlets have focused on his revelation that he’s bisexual, there’s also been attention drawn to his “creative differences” with Kelly Clarkson, who, let’ just say, hasn’t been too pleased about his interpretation of events…
Regardless of the provocative headlines, we had the honor of snagging our own interview with the legendary record producer, who’s worked with music icons like Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Christina Aguilera, Rod Stewart, and the like.
Check out our Q&A with Davis and discover some of his thoughts on his famous collaborations, which artist has distinctly stood out to him, and what he has yet to achieve on his bucket list. Oh, and for you unrelenting fans, he even talks about Milli Vanilli.
What inspired you to write your autobiography now?
I received so many offers and requests for my autobiography over the last few years that I knew it was time that I had to make time and write it.
What is something about yourself that you revealed in your book that readers will be surprised at learning?
That neither I nor anyone at Arista knew that Rob and Fab of Milli Vanilli did not sing. Frank Farian, the uber producer from Germany, had provided us with credits that said Rob and Fab were the vocalists on the album recorded in his recording studio in Germany. The duo picked up on that and certainly told everyone they were the vocalists on the album and, indeed, through their attorney they were negotiating with us, requesting one million dollars per album for a direct recording contract with them for their services.
You’ve launched the careers of so many music legends and are revealing some “never before-heard” stories in your book. Can you share a story about Janis Joplin? Bruce Springsteen? Barry Manilow?
+ Janis wasn’t satisfied with merely signing the actual recording contract. She asked to go to bed with me to make it more personal and meaningful. I was flattered and highly complimented but politely declined.
+ I always considered Bruce a Poet Laureate of America. It’s for that reason that I was excited to join John Hammond in signing him. When his first album was first submitted to us, I called him on the phone and said, ‘You know Bruce, Greetings from Asbury Park is shaping up really great, but I don’t hear a first single. I just don’t hear a cut that’s going to be particularly radio friendly and help break the album.’ To his credit, he didn’t get defensive or say that was his turf; he just went back to writing. Not even a month later he submitted two new songs he had written. One was “Blinded By The Light” and the other was “Spirit In The Night.” I’m proud that they both have become part of his classic repertoire.
+ When I submitted the song “Brandy” to Barry on the first album we would do together, he and his co-producer Ron Dante tried a version that was upbeat. I told them I heard the song as more of an emotional ballad. Barry is a wonderful arranger, and when we were in the studio it only took him 10 minutes to come up with the ballad rendition. It was everything I hoped for and more. Not to be confused with the group Looking Glass’ song “Brandy,” we changed the name of the song to “Mandy.” The rest is history.
You knew Whitney Houston for most of her adult life. How would you describe her legacy and what she contributed to the music world?
Some people are just irreplaceable and Whitney is one of those people. At her funeral I said that you wait for a lifetime for the talent and beauty in one person she possessed. I’ll never forget the day I first heard her sing. She literally took my breath away. Whitney’s talent became “the” standard of excellence that all aspiring singers after her wished to achieve. That’s why on talent shows like American Idol and X-Factor everyone knows that you don’t touch a Whitney Houston song unless you know you can nail it. Simon Cowell cringes whenever he hears a contestant say they are going to sing “I Will Always Love You.” Whenever you hear someone sing The “Star-Spangled Banner” you immediately compare it to hers. Her voice and her music have immortalized her. That’s her legacy—the fact that her vocal talent cannot be duplicated and that her music will live forever.
Clive with Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, and Barry Manilow in 2007. (Getty)
Who are some of the artists you loved making music with and why?
When people ask me about artists that I might have signed or discovered, you know it’s hard to rank them. You can’t say you have a favorite any more than you have a favorite child. But clearly in a very special category is Patti Smith. I remember auditioning her privately in a recording studio. Was she different! A rebel from the word “go,” but her poetry fused with rock music was and is unforgettable. Her take was so original, so different, it was startling. At that audition I knew we had to have her. I loved my years with Aretha and Dionne and Whitney and Barry and Santana. I could go on and on. I was a creative partner for each, and the songs I found they ingeniously interpreted that will live on forever are also very special to me. And then there’s the young renaissance woman, Alicia Keys …
What are the qualities that you look for in someone with star potential?
I look for artists to be headliners. Could he or she fill Radio City or Madison Square Garden and bring the audience out of their seats? If they are self-contained songwriters then you’re scrutinizing the material to see if that material is of lasting impact.
What is the most difficult part about working with big talent?
To make sure they stay grounded and hungry and hard working and passionate and healthy.
How have you seen the music industry change since you started?
Technologically, of course, the industry has gone through seismic changes but the basic principles remain the same. You first want to uncover big, long lasting talent and then whether it’s through radio (still the most important) or video channels or the web, you have to break out the hits that mark important careers.
If fate took a different turn and you weren’t in the music industry, what would you be doing?
Probably, I’d still be a lawyer doing all I could to represent others the best way I know.
Is there anything in life that you feel you have yet to accomplish?
Yes. I’d love to produce a wonderful hit musical on Broadway.
Watch a clip of Davis talking about his new memoir: