Clive Davis typically has many irons in many fires. So even though he’s holed up in an elegant Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow he’s had at his disposal “forever” — fielding phone calls, e-mails and, yes, even faxes while organizing the annual pre-Grammy Awards bash he’s again hosting at the Beverly Hilton Hotel — the veteran producer and record executive makes a point of talking about a project especially close to his heart: a Whitney Houston live album.
“Whitney never had a live album,” he said. “I really want everyone to know ... exactly why during her time she was considered the greatest contemporary singer in the world.
It was two years ago, on the afternoon of his Grammy eve bash, that he and the rest of the world got the word that Houston died in the very hotel where the party was being readied.
“It’s a revelation to hear her,” he said, “but listening to her, the tragedy hits you again, so there are a lot of mixed emotions this brings up.
“I’m going through all these recordings of her performances now, many of which I wasn’t at, such as when she was in South Africa,” said Davis, 81, dressed business casual this week in a navy V-neck sweater over a white oxford shirt and tie. “It’s a revelation: You really hear how astonishing and powerful and compelling she was in a way that wasn’t captured on the studio albums or in her movie performances.”
Davis said he expects the album to be released this year. He hinted that he might just preview it by playing a video clip for his industry audience on Saturday, which will be attended by heavy hitters from the entertainment industry including Metallica, Gladys Knight, Quincy Jones and Napster founder Sean Parker, to name a few.
Davis, Sony Music’s chief creative officer, also has a new album in the works with Aretha Franklin, whose career he helped reinvigorate in the early 1980s when he brought her over to his Arista label. Once there, she scored her first Top 10 hits in more than a dozen years with “Freeway of Love” and her duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” which took her to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for only the second time. “Respect,” in 1967, was the first.
Davis has long been widely respected for his ability to match singers with songs that can elevate their careers — in his words, the goal is “to find a song that fits naturally, so there’s no sense of artificiality when they sing it.”
It’s a skill he continues to exploit whether he’s working with Franklin, a new album of duets between Carlos Santana and artists from the world of Latin pop and rock or the long-incubating Jennifer Hudson album, which Davis says will see the light of day this spring.
The big challenge for Davis and his colleagues in the record industry is finding ways to keep their business profitable while coming to grips with the ongoing digital revolution. Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” was the biggest-selling album of 2013, but it did so with fewer copies sold — 2.4 million — than any other bestselling album since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking retail sales in 1991. Additionally, Nielsen SoundScan’s year-end sales report showed that, for the first time since the digital boom erupted, sales of digital tracks decreased in 2013 over the previous year.
“There are two questions at hand,” he said. “The first is, does this reflect a lack of interest in music itself? And the answer to that is a resounding no. By every criteria there is as much interest in music today than ever before.
“But these figures are troubling,” he said, leading into the second issue. “In this age when people expect to get their music for free, we have to work out how we can protect the rights of creative artists so they are compensated fairly and that the record business itself remains sound and healthy.”
Last year also brought the publication of Davis’ latest book, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” in which he updated his life story since the 1975 publication of his widely read “Clive: Inside the Record Business.” The big revelation in “The Soundtrack of My Life,” which came out in paperback in November, was Davis’ admission that he is bisexual. Overall, however, he said, “the feedback I got from the public through their e-mails, has been gratifying.” There’s also a feature documentary in the works based on the book, he said.
In addition to overseeing the many new albums in the works, Davis also continues working to stage a revival of Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical “My Fair Lady.”
“My plate is very full,” he said. “It’s a very exciting time.”