Hands on, hands off

Special to The Times

CLIVE DAVIS, whose discoveries stretch from Janis Joplin to Alicia Keys, is sitting in his favorite bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, amused to hear what a rival record company chief once said privately about the "American Idol" phenomenon that Davis helps propel: "If 'American Idol' really is the future of the record business, I don't want to be part of this business anymore."

Davis, whose labels release the "Idol" CDs, is too diplomatic to take a pot shot at the executive, who's been fired since that remark two years ago -- though the dismissal apparently didn't have anything to do with the man's view of "American Idol" as shallow and depressing.

Still, it's a popular belief, inside the industry and out, that "American Idol," which begins its sixth season Tuesday, is the antithesis of the creative daring that produced such pop-rock icons as the Beatles, Prince and U2. That's why many pop observers were surprised when the uncompromising rock group Pearl Jam signed with Davis in 2004, becoming, in effect, roster mates of the "Idol" gang.

"I'm well aware that all the success of 'American Idol' puts a taint with some people on my other history, which began with Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and Carlos Santana," the bespectacled Davis says, looking sharp in his nicely tailored slacks and sweater.

"But a discerning person recognizes that when you are running a company, you're dealing with a mixture of commerce and art. The important thing is to know when you are dealing with art and when you are dealing with commerce, and I know that difference."

He's been famously hands-on in picking songs for singers such as Whitney Houston ("Saving All My Love for You") and Kelly Clarkson ("Since U Been Gone"), seeming to find as much enthusiasm for those who interpret songs as those who write them. And when a Pearl Jam arrives on his doorstep, he easily steps back.

"They write their own songs and ... I told them, of course, I'd respect what they do," he says. "The whole conversation took two minutes.

"Ninety percent of the artists I sign are pretty much self-contained, and I would never interfere with them. Take Alicia. She's such a brilliant writer that it would never occur to me to give her someone else's song to record."

Davis' skill in mining hits from a wide range of artists -- spanning Aretha Franklin, the Grateful Dead, Kenny G, "Idol" stars and more -- has given him what some consider to be the most impressive history of any record executive. In an industry obsessed by youth, few top-level executives have been able to repeat their success after leaving one label, but this New Yorker has triumphed with three labels over four decades. At 73, he's still listening for the ever-shifting sound of a hit -- and finding it.

As chairman and chief executive of BMG U.S., he heads a recording empire that includes approximately 170 artists, 500 employees and generates about $1 billion a year in sales. That roster includes such stars as Usher, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Dave Matthews Band and the Foo Fighters.

Oddly, it may have been an advantage for Davis not to have grown up a huge rock fan. Where many rock-minded executives look down on traditional pop, Davis, whose early love was Broadway musicals, respects the craft involved in mainstream pop, and that's left him open to a variety of artists others might have turned away, along with projects like "American Idol."

He and his staff haven't turned all the "Idol" favorites into stars, but some have emerged as bestsellers, notably Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.

"The mistake people make about 'American Idol' is that they think the show itself is enough to make anyone a bestseller, so there is no creativity involved," Davis, a guest judge on the TV program, says in his deliberate, thorough way. "But the show's exposure is only worth about 350,000 to 500,000 record sales for an artist.

"To go beyond that, you have to have hit songs to get on the radio."

Referring to Clarkson's second album, which has sold 10 million copies, he said, "We've broken her in countries where 'American Idol' was never even heard. At the same time, it's not a case of the songs carrying the artists. Kelly is a very strong singer. It's simply a perfect combination of artist and material."

Davis hasn't, however, sold millions of records just by finding new artists and songs. He has also been adroit at helping veteran artists rebound, notably Santana and Rod Stewart.

Most recently, he reteamed with Barry Manilow, whom he hadn't worked with in years. While watching Manilow's concert in Las Vegas, Davis came up with the idea of Manilow making an album filled with ballads from the '50s.

"The thing in the back of my mind was that if Barry singing songs from the '50s was a hit, then there were all the other decades," Davis says. "Barry sings the '60s, the '70s ..."

He smiles, but he's not kidding.

After Manilow's '50s collection sold 1 million copies following its release last January, Arista released Manilow's '60s CD in October and it sold 202,000 copies the first week.

Clive Jay Davis is serious when it comes to making hits.

No rules to follow

THE living room of Davis' hotel bungalow looks like a musical laboratory. The first things you see are a shiny Yamaha baby grand piano and a massive battery of sound and video equipment.

They are set up for Davis -- who comes here once a month and stays a week -- so songwriters, from anxious newcomers to veteran hit-weaving wonders like Diane Warren, can play him their latest offerings.

It was in these meetings -- or similar ones at his office in Manhattan -- that Davis first heard such hits as "Since U Been Gone" for Clarkson and "Un-Break My Heart" for Toni Braxton.

If anyone listens now to those and other Davis hits, it's easy to think they too could have "heard" the potential of the songs, but the compositions often go through considerable reworking.

At a Learning Annex lecture a couple of years ago, Davis played some early tapes to show how a song changes during the recording process. The audience "ooh-ed" and "ahh-ed" over some of the moves, which typically include a change of key for the vocalist or a shift of tempo or maybe beefing up the song's verses to better support the chorus.

The lesson of the evening was there are no rules, except to be open-minded.

That helps explain how his roster at Arista, where he ruled for a quarter century, was so wide-ranging -- rapper Notorious B.I.G., legendary rockers the Grateful Dead, punk poetess Patti Smith and the scandal-plagued Milli Vanilli, who, it turned out, didn't actually sing on their records, which were leased to Arista in the U.S. (Davis has said he had no knowledge of the deception).

No wonder the top brass at Bertelsmann Music Group wanted to maintain ties with Davis so badly after he was forced out of Arista in 2000 -- supposedly because he was past the corporate age limit -- that they fired the officials responsible and then gave Davis $150 million to start a new, joint-venture label with them.

It was the largest start-up investment in music business history, and Davis got J off to such a fast start, with Alicia Keys and the "American Idol" association, that BMG further rewarded Davis by buying his 50% ownership of J. The corporation then merged J with its other record labels, including RCA, Arista, LaFace and Jive.

And whom did they ask to run the entire show?

"Well, that was a gratifying year," Davis says in his customary low-key style.

A 'square' outsider

DAVIS' personalized bungalow is also equipped with a fax machine, multiple phone lines, a full beverage supply and a cookie tray for visitors. The only thing that doesn't look like it belongs in the music business is Davis himself.

This suave, extremely gracious figure with the stylish wardrobe and slightly aristocratic aura would be a casting director's dream when it comes to playing the head of a Washington law firm or an ambassador. But you'd never cast him as the chairman of a modern record company -- unless you were planning a satire. In the parlance of the '60s, Davis looks by pop standards like a flat-out square -- and that's how much of the industry long viewed him.

When the Harvard law school graduate, who was brought into Columbia Records in 1960 as a contract lawyer, took over running the label six years later, there was obvious concern. It was in the heart of the rock revolution and Columbia's roster leaned toward adult pop and stage musicals.

Davis didn't picture himself as a talent spotter. He left signings to others. After all, his mentor, former Columbia chief Goddard Lieberson, hadn't signed artists. But that changed in summer 1967 when he went to the Monterey International Pop Music Festival.

"When I pulled into the grounds and saw the crowd, it was visually stunning, the dress and the attitude," Davis recalls, still in awe of the moment. "It was like another culture. Strangers were walking up giving you necklaces."

The music hit equally hard. "When Janis took the stage, it was something you could never forget, watching her vibrate and almost convulse as she sang. "I said, 'Wow, I've got to make a move.' "

Davis was so inspired that weekend that he also signed Laura Nyro, the Electric Flag and Santana. The success of those artists gave him confidence that he had "good ears."

Even though Columbia's market share doubled during Davis' reign, he was still considered by many in the industry to be an outsider. With his Harvard background and refined dress and manner, he looked like a man born with a silver spoon.

In truth, though, Davis was from the streets. The son of working-class parents in Brooklyn, he was shaken in his late teens when his parents died within a year of each other. He moved in with his sister while he attended New York University on a scholarship. After Harvard, he landed a job at a law firm whose clients included Columbia.

There were other factors that caused many in the industry to speak disparagingly of Davis back then. Part of it was jealousy. Part was his tendency toward self-aggrandizement. The jacket sleeve to his 1975 biography claimed that he was "universally regarded as the most important figure in the revolution of the record industry."

So some rivals thought Davis' career was over in 1973 when he was fired for allegedly using corporate funds to underwrite his son's bar mitzvah. Davis denies any wrongdoing and maintains the dismissal was the result of a power struggle triggered by a looming payola probe in the music business.

The odds against a rebound seemed even longer when, rather than latch on with another major label, he started a new label for Columbia Pictures that he named after his old high school honor society: Arista.

Mixing and matching

DAVIS had seen the success of Atlantic's Jerry Wexler in finding songs for Aretha Franklin and he figured he too could find hits for pop singers.

He started by finding songs on other people's albums that he felt had potential. His first big score at Arista was with a song, "Brandy," that caught his ear on a record by Scott English. Davis didn't care much for the title or the song's tempo, but he liked the song. The trick was selling it to Manilow.

"Barry Manilow was very upfront," Davis says. "He thought of himself as a writer, and I was trying to get him to sing someone else's song. He said, 'I want to be Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and you want to make me into Andy Williams or Perry Como.' "

But when "Mandy" helped Manilow's 1974 album sell more than a million copies, he became a Clive believer. And Davis, who turned up more potential hit songs than he could use with Manilow, started signing other singers, including Dionne Warwick.

When listening to a song, Davis looks for lyrics that are believable and a story that he feels is universal, and, of course, a melody that sticks with you. Then, he has to match it with the right singer.

Most record execs run down a checklist when assessing an act: the quality of the artist, the strength of management, the degree of ambition and determination on the part of the artist, the style of music. Not Davis.

"It starts and ends with talent for me," he says, his pet beagle, Teddy, asleep on the couch by his side. "I look for someone who has a star quality, who has the potential to be a headliner, someone who is unique."

Not everyone Davis signs comes close to uniqueness. Every important label is built around a handful of those cornerstone artists. One of them for Davis was Whitney Houston.

Talking about Houston brings back such grand memories that Davis pauses and closes his eyes , almost as if reliving the moments.

"I was told by an A&R; man named Gerry Griffith that I should see a young singer who was the daughter of Cissy Houston," Davis finally begins.

"I went to see her at a club and she did two songs in her mother's act. One of them was 'The Greatest Love of All,' which was a theme song I found for the Ali movie and I even made a record of it with George Benson. To hear her sing it literally sent shivers down my spine."

It's easy to imagine Davis' excitement that night because all these years later he still cites "Greatest Love" when asked which of all the songs he's heard in his search for new material had the most immediate impact on him.

To find material for Houston, Davis set up showcases for writers and listened to hundreds of songs over a two-year period. Despite the dangers of too much hype, he was so confident the debut album would meet expectations that he went on Merv Griffin's TV show in 1985 to introduce Houston to the nation. The album sold 21 million copies.

With subsequent Houston albums, Davis looked for hits with equal fervor, coming up with so many songs for her that he sometimes had to hold them two years to find a place for them.

Another of Davis' cornerstone artists simply walked in the front door: Alicia Keys.

Still in her teens when she sat down to play three songs in Davis' office, Keys was such a natural that Davis was momentarily angered when Peter Edge, one of his A&R; aides, and Jeff Robinson, Keys' manager, told him that the young singer was under contract to Columbia.

"I thought this was a terrible tease," Davis says. "I mean, how could you get someone like that out of the contract?"

But Davis learned Columbia wanted her to look for songs by other writers and work with an established producer. Keys balked. At an impasse, Columbia agreed to release her to Arista in return for the money the label had invested in her, around $300,000 to $400,000.

While Keys worked on the album, Davis focused on an aggressive promotional campaign a la Houston. Still, the first single, "Fallin'," got off to a slow start on radio. So a worried Davis went to Plan B.

Aware of Oprah Winfrey's impact with books, Davis suggested the TV host devote a show to some young singers who were part of a new, neo-soul movement. Winfrey agreed, and Davis sent her a copy of "Fallin' " so she'd be familiar with it when Keys went on the show.

"The great moment was when the camera turned to Oprah while Alicia was singing and it showed Oprah singing along with her," Davis says. "What better endorsement?"

Keys' album entered the charts at No. 1. It sold 12 million copies around the world.

'Dreamgirl' almost got away

HIS next star -- Davis hopes -- was a gift from "American Idol," even though he needed a second look to realize it. Jennifer Hudson is the toast of showbiz, but it took the singer's "Dreamgirls" screen test for Davis to see her potential.

Like the viewers who voted her off "American Idol" two years ago, the record industry titan passed on Hudson even though it would have cost the label only peanuts because Davis has the option to sign any of the top dozen finalists each season.

He says now that he was impressed by Hudson but felt he already had too many soul divas on the roster, including Fantasia, the winner that season.

By the time Davis was "wowed" by Hudson's screen test, he no longer had the recording rights to the young singer. One reason Davis won over rival labels -- paying a far higher price than if he had picked up her option -- was that he agreed to oversee the recording of Hudson's debut album. He now speaks of approaching the project the same way as a Houston album.

And what about Houston herself, whose personal troubles have interrupted her career for years?

Unlike many industry bigwigs, Davis doesn't like to deal in gossip, so he's not going to say anything personal about her. His only aside: "I love looking forward to another album with Whitney because I know that when she's healthy, she's the best singer in the world. I think we'll be going into the studio soon."

Davis twists in his chair when asked about his own future. He almost looks offended when asked if he thinks about stepping aside after five intense, high-profile decades at the very center of the pop music pressure mill.

"I'm used to the pressure," he says finally. "In a certain sense I thrive on it. If the report cards did not continue to be good, I would quit in a second and be incredibly grateful for the career. But if you still have the energy and the passion to do it, why stop arbitrarily?"

Plenty of passion and energy

DAVIS' continuing passion is certainly evident.

When talking about an upcoming release, he loves to step over to the sound system and play the disc. Invariably, he'll get so caught up in the music he'll look like he's in a trance, moving his arms like a conductor as he points to a particular vocal passage or instrumental touch.

After listening to a duet from the early '90s between Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra on "What Now My Love," he closes his eyes and almost spins full circle. At the end of the number, which will appear on an upcoming Aretha duets album, he opens his eyes, and asks, "Isn't that just fabulous?"

It's that love of music and hit-making that continues to drive him. Many record producers and executives say they make records they like and hope the public agrees. Davis is upfront about making records that he thinks that the public will buy. To that end, he listens to every new song that enters the top rungs of the pop, country, R&B;, hip-hop and Latin charts to keep current.

"It's easy to think you know the answer to a hit, but what is a hit today may not be a hit tomorrow," he says. "I come from a healthy respect for failure. I get paid a lot of money to worry. I don't stop worrying until a record comes out and it is a hit. I'm thrilled when it happens."

If Davis does decide to retire at some point, there'll be a lot of testimonials for him, and they'll be genuine. You can still find detractors in the industry who say Davis is better at promoting himself than running a label, but no executive is totally free of doubters.The old jealousy and resentment has turned, in most cases, to respect.

The thing you hear most often is people wondering how long he can maintain his grueling, 12-hour-a-day schedule.

"I appreciate the concern, but I love doing it, and I do have a life outside of music," he says by phone from New York. He enjoys traveling and had just spent the holidays in St. Barths with members of his family, which includes three sons, a daughter and four grandchildren. "I try to mix it up and show my family the world a little.

"At the same time, I just thrive on my work. We have half the material for the album chosen for Whitney's next album and I'm meeting with Whitney on the 16th to go over the choices for the remaining material and the 'American Idol' season is about to begin. That's exciting, because you never know who'll walk out on that stage next."

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Next: Producer Rick Rubin, who has worked with a diverse group of artists including the Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash.

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