The Relentless Hit Man

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. Chuck Philips is a Times staff writer

Want to talk about great comebacks?

Sinatra . . . Nixon . . . KISS . . . miniskirts . . . the American car industry?

Add Clive Davis.

Who ever imagined that anyone with as many career embarrassments as Clive Davis could reemerge in the '90s as the consensus choice for the title of premier executive in the record industry?

Consider Davis' history:

* Fired from the presidency of Columbia Records in 1973, after being accused of mishandling corporate funds, and subsequently suspended by the New York Bar Assn. over a related tax code violation.

* A reputation for aggressive self-promotion that culminated in a highly publicized 1974 book about his years at Columbia--a book whose jacket sleeve declared that Davis was "universally regarded as the most important figure in the ['60s] revolution in the record industry . . . "

* Released the music of Milli Vanilli, the duo that didn't sing on its own records in 1989 and was forced to give back its best new artist Grammy after the hoax was discovered.

In any other industry (well, any industry other than the anything-goes movie business), someone with this resume might be lucky to still have a job.

Yet Arista Records' Davis--who has been instrumental in the success of artists ranging from Whitney Houston to Barry Manilow to Kenny G--is alive and prospering.

Talk about nine lives.

To Davis, it's not just luck.

"I notice it as a pretty Jewish trait, to be honest with you, whereby you operate as though success will not last . . . that you will not get an A just because you got an A before," Davis says, when asked about his own resilience during one in a series of interview sessions in Los Angeles and New York that stretched over a dozen hours. During the meetings, he was clearly proud of his achievements, but spoke with equal frankness about the rough spots in his past.

"I don't approach anything expecting that it's automatically going to happen to this day."

*

To some, the surprising industry coronation of Davis as pop's premier executive began the day in 1995 when he was rewarded with an unprecedented $50-million contract to keep running Arista Records into the next century. Money talks.

His standing grew in recent months as the rest of the industry began seeing him as more than a one-dimensional executive whose touch was limited to traditional pop. He has moved boldly in the '90s to help launch highly successful labels that specialize in country (Alan Jackson), rap (Outkast) and R&B; (Toni Braxton).

Just last year, he added Time Bomb Records, a joint venture with Jim Guerinot, who as manager and record executive worked with such hit underground bands as Offspring, Rancid and Social Distortion.

But the key piece in the puzzle fell in place last year when the industry's most respected figure, Mo Ostin, stepped down at Warner Bros. Records. It was time in pop to declare a new king--and the big-bucks contract and sales figures over at Arista made Davis the obvious candidate.

Davis' peers have always known him to be a shrewd and tenacious competitor, but many in the record industry had tended to underrate his accomplishments over the past three decades.

Remarkably, Davis has reached the top at two different labels--something Ostin is now trying to duplicate as the head of DreamWorks Records.

Davis started Arista from scratch in the mid-'70s after being booted out of Columbia, where he had been instrumental in the careers of such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin and Sly & the Family Stone.

At Arista, he has built one of the most profitable U.S. record operations, generating a whopping $500 million last year in album sales worldwide--10 times the amount that its parent company, the Munich-based Bertelsmann Music Group conglomerate, paid for Arista in 1980. With 10 albums on the Top 100 pop chart this week, Arista accounts for about half of the total global revenue of BMG's music division.

"Clive is a triple threat," Ostin says. "He is not only a superb entrepreneur and executive, he is also an outstanding artist-and-repertoire man. Clive does it all. He is the Michael Jordan of the record business."

Any other contenders for Davis' crown?

Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, was Ostin's chief rival for years but long ago gave up the day-to-day operation of Atlantic to become one of Time Warner's top corporate players.

David Geffen, who built Asylum Records and Geffen Records, was the logical heir to Ostin's throne, but he has moved beyond music to focus on a wider entertainment empire.

Of today's executive crop, the challengers for Davis' executive crown begin with Sony's Tommy Mottola and MCA's Doug Morris, but the gap between them and Davis is wide.

That leaves many in the industry looking to the next generation of label heads for an eventual successor to Davis--primarily Jimmy Iovine.

He's the remarkably successful fortysomething force behind cutting-edge Interscope Records and a former record producer whose credits include U2, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and Patti Smith. It was, in fact, Davis who gave Iovine, a former recording engineer, his first production assignment: "Easter," the 1976 album that included Smith's hit single "Because the Night."

"What I learned from Clive is that the only thing that matters at the end of the day when you are making a record is the 3 1/2 minutes of magic," Iovine says. "Everyone says they keep the music first, but from my experience, Clive is one of the few who truly practices this."

*

It's just past 10 on a Wednesday morning and Davis, 63, is on the phone in the living room of his Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow, the New Yorker's West Coast office for one week of every month. He's complaining to the front desk that the fax machine isn't working and that he's expecting some important papers. Help arrives quickly, and the machine is soon spewing out a stack of sales and radio airplay statistics.

Suave and sophisticated, Davis looks at home amid the luxury of the hotel, where he has reserved a bungalow for nearly 30 years. You can picture him closing deals out by the pool or hosting one of his legendary Grammy bashes in the ballroom.

But Davis, for all the old talk of a runaway ego, tends to shy away from ceremonial excess. A self-described workaholic, he is not one to waste valuable hours mingling at hip industry hangouts. Davis spends the bulk of his day holed up in his bungalow previewing demo tapes--stacks of which clutter the piano and dining room table--in search of new material.

Artists, producers and writers stop by day and night while he's in town to play fresh songs for Davis, whose musical suggestions through the years have contributed to the success of such performers as Houston, Manilow and Franklin.

The visitors this week range from Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, the ace writer-producer responsible for Arista's acclaimed "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack album last year, to Diane Warren, who has written enough Top 10 hits to fill a jukebox.

Davis is excited this morning about a song on Houston's new soundtrack album, "The Preacher's Wife." Dressed casually in a sweater and slacks, the short, balding executive searches frantically through a mound of tapes until he finds an early demo version of the song, which Arista artist Annie Lennox wrote eight months ago--after hearing Houston sing at Davis' Grammy party in Los Angeles--and passed to Davis in hopes that Houston would record it.

Davis cranks up the volume until the room is throbbing with the rhythms of Lennox's gospel-tinged demo. Closing his eyes, Davis abandons himself to the music and begins snapping his fingers and bobbing his head like a teenager.

"To me, there is no greater thrill than when you discover a terrific song," says Davis, curling up on the couch after the tape ends. "It's not just something you can hear. You can feel it down into your spine. I had no idea when I entered this business that I had an ear for music. Honestly, I started out as a lawyer and just sort of fell into it by accident."

Driven and demanding, Davis is intimately involved in the marketing and promotion plans for most Arista recordings. Rivals say he is the only label chief today who still handpicks material for many of his biggest stars.

"Clive just seems to be ever-growing," says soul icon Aretha Franklin, who has been with Davis' label since the early 1980s. "He loves the music and appreciates his artists. He's not just kicking back somewhere counting his money. He is a consummate record man who is constantly evolving."

But Ray Davies, whose band the Kinks has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, points out that Davis' ear for hits isn't completely unerring. In a concert broadcast for VH1, he noted good-naturedly that Davis once told him that the Kinks' "Come Dancing" didn't sound like a hit. The record spent 17 weeks on the U.S. charts in 1983, reaching a peak of No. 6.

And some observers see Davis' eagerness to get involved with musical matters as a handicap in trying to build a strong rock roster at Arista.

"The reason Clive interferes with his artists' records is because he thinks they are his records," said one rival record executive, who requested anonymity. "Some artists don't want so much input from an executive. That's probably the main reason he hasn't had much luck in the rock world, where artists don't want somebody butting in."

For all his success, Davis has never been much of a corporate animal. Arista may be owned by BMG, but Davis runs the label like his own private fiefdom, rarely hearing a peep out of anybody in the BMG hierarchy.

"Corporations haven't got a clue when it comes to creativity in the music world," Davis says. "I remember a few years ago when everybody was talking about synergy and how powerful all these corporate figureheads were. Well, half of those guys are gone now. They really didn't know anything about music then, and they don't really know anything about it now."

Clive Jay Davis was much too practical and career-oriented as a youngster to ever consider working in the entertainment business. Although he was fascinated by Broadway musicals, Davis--the son of a Brooklyn tie salesman--devoted most of his energy to his studies and planned from an early age to enter the legal field.

Badly shaken in his late teens when his parents died within a year of each other, Davis moved in with his sister while he attended New York University on a scholarship. He went on to graduate at the top of his class from Harvard Law School and soon landed a job at a law firm whose clients included CBS, which owned Columbia Records.

Davis was later invited to join CBS' legal team and, in 1966, he was named president of Columbia Records. Convinced that Columbia's talent-scout division was too middle-of-the-road, Davis began testing his own instincts for talent in the rock field.

The breakthrough came at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Davis still recalls his feeling when he saw blues-rock wonder Janis Joplin. "She breathed fire," he says. "She was like a whirling dervish who overwhelmed with her passion."

Davis felt convinced that there was a cultural revolution going on and that Columbia needed to delve into the rock market.

"I could see the effect these artists were having on the crowd," he says. "It's not like I was God's gift to the creative world. I was just using common sense."

During the next few years, Davis led the Columbia charge that resulted in the signing of such artists as Joplin; the Electric Flag; Sly & the Family Stone; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Chicago; Santana; Laura Nyro; and Billy Joel. Davis snatched the acts up cheaply, and Columbia profits soared. The label jumped from No. 3 in market share, behind RCA and Capitol, in 1965 to No. 1 by 1968.

So you can imagine Davis' surprise on the morning of May 29, 1973, when he was suddenly summoned to the 35th floor of CBS headquarters in New York and told to clear out his desk and not come back. CBS fired him for allegedly using corporate funds to underwrite his son's bar mitzvah and a rental property on the West Coast.

Davis denies any wrongdoing, claiming that a personal assistant misused his account without his knowledge. He insists that his ousting was the culmination of a power struggle triggered by a looming payola probe of the record business.

After his termination, however, Davis was indicted in federal court on tax-evasion charges, and his license to practice law was suspended by the New York State Bar. He pleaded guilty to a single count involving a trip to Jamaica and was required to pay a $10,000 fine.

"It was devastating," says Davis, whose license to practice law was just reinstated by the bar in October. "It was the most humiliating moment of my life."

Deeply hurt by the firing and such other Columbia moves as prohibiting artists from thanking him in liner notes, Davis wrote "Inside the Record Business," a book documenting his years at the label.

But many in the industry saw the highly publicized book as nothing more than a vanity play. If the pop world chuckled over it, Davis' exploits over the next 25 years at Arista would leave many in awe.

Davis wasn't out of a job for long. Columbia Pictures (no relation to Columbia Records), unhappy with the lackluster showing of its Bell Records label, offered Davis the challenge in 1974 of starting a new label, one they hoped would eventually compete with the industry leaders.

In starting Arista, named after Davis' Brooklyn high school honor society, Davis decided to roll the dice on a young singer-songwriter named Barry Manilow, whose debut Bell album had bombed.

Searching with Manilow for material for the singer's second album, he found an upbeat Scott English-Richard Kerr song, "Brandy," but thought that Manilow should change it to a ballad and rename it "Mandy." The single went to No. 1 in 1975.

The experience encouraged Davis to be more active in the selection of material. He branched out into R&B;, blending veterans such as Franklin with newcomers--most notably Whitney Houston. Other big crossover stars: Kenny G and Ace of Base.

Although Davis remains best known at Arista for pop fare, the label head has reached into rock through the years, signing such veterans as the Grateful Dead, Lou Reed and the Kinks as well as acclaimed '70s arrivals Patti Smith and Graham Parker.

By 1990, however, Davis had become embroiled in another controversy. Milli Vanilli frontmen Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan publicly stated that Davis knew that the pop duo did not sing on their 7-million-selling album before they won a Grammy for best new artist of 1989. The lip-syncing team claimed that they were pawns in an elaborate corporate marketing scheme that was approved by top officials at Arista, including Davis.

Davis still adamantly denies the allegations. Arista, he insists, was merely a distributor of the duo's album, which was recorded in Germany and delivered to the label by Milli Vanilli producer Frank Farian, who had represented that Pilatus and Morvan were the singers.

"That's absurd," says Davis, who in 1991 received a letter from Pilatus in which he apologized and asked for a new recording contract. "[They] never ever admitted they couldn't sing. I only had one private meeting with them in my life . . . and all they wanted was tobreak their German contract and enter into an Arista recording agreement. They bragged loudly about their singing ability."

You can trace Davis' career through the photos on the walls of his 57th Street office in New York. There he is with Joplin and Sly Stone and Jerry Garcia, Patti Smith and Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand and Aretha, Barry Manilow and Kenny G and, of course, Whitney.

And that's probably the biggest gripe in the music business about Davis. Many think he exaggerates his role in the discovery and development of the artists he is forever bragging about. Davis, however, insists that there is nothing wrong with standing up and taking credit where credit is due.

"Nobody questions it when an artist spells out the string of hits that made him famous," Davis says. "So why shouldn't an executive be able to list the artists he signed? I don't think that is an indication of someone having a big ego. It's not vanity. The fact is I've been fortunate to work with many creative geniuses throughout my career and I am very proud of it."

Entertainers are not the only ones whose careers have benefited from Davis' magic touch. He also tutored a number of veteran label heads, including Walter Yetnikoff, Al Teller and Don Ienner. In recent years, Davis has been credited with helping cultivate some of the industry's most promising new executive talents.

To be sure, Arista has blossomed into a full-service record company thanks in large part to successful artistic gambles made by Davis' handpicked stable of young label chiefs: Arista Nashville's Tim Dubois, LaFace's Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Bad Boy's Sean "Puffy" Combs and Rowdy's Dallas Austin.

These brash upstarts have helped Arista establish strong credentials in the country, rap and R&B; markets, and they continue to provide Davis with records that he can also cross over into the lucrative pop world--one of his most noteworthy skills.

Davis keeps profits high at Arista by signing fewer acts and putting out fewer albums than competitors, a strategy that allows his label to concentrate its resources on marketing and promoting every record it releases. Indeed, Arista is one of the only start-up labels that has been able to continually bolster its market share through internal growth rather than costly acquisitions.

When he's not working 12 hours a day, Davis enjoys traveling abroad with his four sons. They take several European vacations each year--none, however, without a phone or fax nearby.

As much as Davis enjoys relaxing with his family these days, he has no plans to retire in the near future.

"I feel like I am on top of my game right now," says Davis, whose new BMG pact could provide him with more than $50 million in performance perks (above his $50-million guarantee) before it expires. "Age has nothing to do with success. Look at Sumner Redstone [the 73-year-old chairman of Viacom Inc.]. My God, he's older than me and still going strong. It isn't money that propels him forward. He's still out there competing and responding to the challenge.

"Running a record company comes natural to me. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction. And I plan to continue doing it until the day it stops being fun."

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