Born in 1932 in Brooklyn, New York, Clive Davis started out as a lawyer. He landed a job at Columbia Records and eventually became its president. While there, Davis signed Janis Joplin, Aerosmith, and others to the label. In 1974, he started Arista Records. He mentored such performers as Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston. Davis created J Records in 2000 and now serves as the chief creative officer for Sony Music.
Sometimes known as the Man with the Golden Ears, Clive Jay Davis—born on April 4, 1932, in Brooklyn, New York—didn't start out with the intention of becoming one of music's most influential executives. His intense dedication and work ethic emerged early on, as he applied himself to his studies. After losing both of his parents as a teenager, Davis found himself on his own. He worked hard to earn top grades, which helped him win scholarships to New York University and Harvard Law School.
After completing Harvard Law in 1956, Davis joined a law firm that worked with Columbia Records. He moved over to Columbia a few years later as a part of their legal department. Davis then worked his way up in the organization, eventually becoming president of the label in 1967. That same year, he began his rise as a musical tastemaker.
Davis attended the famous Monterey Pop Festival, where he saw such rock acts as the Janis Joplin-fronted Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane. Davis was especially impressed by Joplin, and signed her to his label. Eventually selling more than 25 million records, Joplin became Davis' first great success story. He went on to sign such diverse acts as Earth, Wind & Fire, Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith.
In 1973, Davis was fired for using corporate funds for personal expenses, including paying for his son's bar mitzvah. He has disputed this charge, claiming the company wanted to get rid of him. Whatever the case, Davis didn't take long to find a new home. He founded Arista Records the following year, and soon returned to his hit-making ways. One of his early discoveries was Barry Manilow, who scored the label's first No. 1 hit with 1975's "Mandy."
Not just focused on pop music, Davis continued to find new rock talent. He signed punk legend Patti Smith and released one of her most acclaimed albums Horses in 1975. Davis was also instrumental in launching the careers of British rockers in the band, The Kinks.
In addition to finding new talent, Davis showed great skill at reviving the careers of several performers. He worked with Dionne Warwick to bring her back to the charts in 1979 with "I'll Never Love This Way Again," off her album Dionne. With his guidance, Davis helped Warwick become popular and critically acclaimed once more. He also helped the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin win over a new generation of fans in the early 1980s.
Around this time, Davis made one of his most famous discoveries. He saw a teenage Whitney Houston perform, and quickly signed her to his label. In 1985, Houston's first album, Whitney, came out and spawned several No. 1 hits, starting with "Saving All My Love." Houston became one of the top acts of the 1980s and 1990s, and Davis remained her mentor and supporter throughout her career.
In late 1990s, Davis took a hands-on approach to bringing Carlos Santana back into the popular music scene. He worked on finding collaborators and songs with hit potential for this legendary rock guitarist. The pairing of singer Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty and Santana on "Smooth" hit the top of the charts and led to strong sales of the album Supernatural. Supernatural brought Davis his first Grammy win as a producer.
Davis is also good at spotting talent behind the scenes. During his time at Arista, he worked on a number of business ventures. Davis helped L.A. Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds launch LaFace Records as a division of Arista. He also mentored rapper-entrepreneur Sean "Puffy" Combs who formed Bad Boy Records.
Davis stepped down as president of Arista in 2000. That same year, he launched J Records. His new label featured such established and emerging stars as Luther Vandross and Alicia Keys. That same year, Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Patti Smith for his contributions to the industry.
In 2002, Davis became the president and CEO of RCA Music Group, which included his J Records label. He continued to be active in his work with new artists, serving as a producer for two American Idol sensations, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson. Mergers and restructuring led to another job change for Davis in 2008. He became the chief creative officer for Sony BMG, now called Sony Music Entertainment.
Davis has remained a loyal supporter of many of the acts he discovered over the years. In 2009, he helped Whitney Houston with her comeback album I Look To You, which reached the top of the charts. Only a few years later, Davis lost his longtime protégée. Houston's death occurred just a day before the Grammy Awards in 2012. At his annual pre-Grammy party, he told those gathered that "I am personally devastated by the loss of someone who has meant so much to me for so many years. Whitney was so full of life."
Now approaching his eighth decade, Davis shows no signs of slowing down. He remains an influential force in the music world. Davis is also active in a number of charitable and educational endeavors. In 2005, he gave $5 million to New York University to Department of Recorded Music and serves as an advisor to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music there.
This father of four is also dedicated to his family. He gathers once a week with his children and grandchildren and takes several trips with them each year. "I don't want to be loving strangers. We want to be able to grow through life together meaningfully," Davis once told Esquire magazine.
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