Whitney, Aretha and Springsteen! Clive Davis Shares Career Secrets of Music's Biggest Stars

After celebrating his 90th birthday on April 4, the man with the platinum touch is just as busy as ever. Davis recently hosted the Paramount+ miniseries Clive Davis: Most Iconic Performances and is hard at work producing the upcoming Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody. In recognition of his milestone birthday, the iconic exec looks back at his record-breaking career and the legendary artists he helped shape.

01 of 09

Janis Joplin

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Photo of Clive DAVIS and Janis JOPLIN; with Clive Davis, President of CBS Records (Photo by Elliott Landy/Redferns)
Elliott Landy/Redferns

"I never expected to be in music, I never expected to run a record company. I never studied how to listen. But after I heard Janis Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival, that's when I decided, 'Oh my God, I'm going to start signing artists.' I tell you, the first time you do something that pays off, you never forget. And I was scared stiff to sign an artist. I was alone in Monterey. There were no A&R people with me. I was going for entertainment. It never occurred to me that a revolution was taking place. I'm out there in my tennis sweater and everyone else is wearing robes and flowers! This was a unique period of time, a revolution socially and musically. I signed Janis and I'll never forget it. It was an epiphany that changed my life."

02 of 09

Simon & Garfunkel

Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, and Clive Davis Caption reads Three boys from the outer boroughs by the pool at the Columbia Records convention, 1970
Sony Music Archive

"I was the head of Columbia Records and Simon & Garfunkel were getting ready for a new album in 1970. They scheduled a meeting with me and said, 'We're going to ask you to pick the first single.' I listened to the whole album and when I heard 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' I was flabbergasted. It knocked me out. And in that era, if your single was more than three and a half minutes, stations wouldn't play it. I knew it was a ballad and not some uptempo rock song, but you can't go your whole life just giving formulaic responses. Everything I've done in life has been spontaneous because I don't read music and I'm not a musician. ['Bridge Over Troubled Water'] was so unique that I picked it [as the single]. Paul and Artie were shocked. They asked me why. They were nervous, because they were practical and savvy. And I said, 'It's an all-time great record and if we break this, you will dominate. You'll be the American Beatles.' To this day, it's my all-time favorite pop song."

03 of 09

Miles Davis

Miles Davis and Clive Davis 1969
Sony Music

"Early in my career, Miles Davis came to see me...in his inimitable fashion. I had signed [horn groups] Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. He sat down and said to me, 'You're signing these long-haired white kids and they're stealing from me and they're selling millions. I am really angry!' At first I didn't even know how to answer him. I said, 'I'm going to make a deal with you. I will have you as a special guest star for some of my signings. I will arrange for you to appear before a few thousand college-age students. You're going to understand what music is resonating with the youth.' He agreed, and the album that came out of that experience was Bitches Brew. And it really did great. He called me up and said, 'You delivered. You're a great man.' He invited me to one of his concerts at the Fillmore East. 'I don't want you showing up with your jacket and tie,' he said. 'I want to buy your entire outfit.' I said, 'Look, I'm touched. That's so personal.' We took pictures together that night. It was very special. I'll always remember that."

04 of 09

Bruce Springsteen

Clive Davis posted this photo to his Instagram account on November 12, 2017 with the caption: "I saw Bruce @springsteen’s triumph on Broadway recently and had a chance to reminisce with my old friend on the early days of our careers and time working together. Bruce couldn’t believe the filmmakers of my film found some of the early footage that they did. You can watch #thesoundtrackofourlives on @iTunes now."
Clive Davis/Instagram

"When I signed Bruce Springsteen, it had zero to do with live performance. He just stood there. When he auditioned for me, he just stood and played the guitar and sang his songs. I listened and was blown away by his imagery and poetry. He's gone on to be one of our poet laureates, along with Bob Dylan and Patti Smith.

A few months later, in 1973, I was at a rehearsal. Springsteen came out on this huge stage, the size of Radio City Music Hall, and stood there singing his songs. I'm alone in the theater, so I walk up to the stage and I say to him, 'It's the first time I've seen you on a large stage. It's usually at small clubs and I never knew if you'd move or not. Would you consider' — you got to be delicate — 'would you consider moving? Something to consider.' We walked from one side of the stage to the other side of the stage. 'Don't do it if it's not natural to you, but I know that the potential of the songs would lend itself to more movement on your part.'

A short time after, his manager called me up: 'Bruce would love you to come to the Bottom Line' — this small club. And he jumped on every table at the Bottom Line. I was flabbergasted. He became a Bruce Springsteen that I had never, ever seen before. He was a whirling dervish. It's one of those cases where an artist becomes even better and bigger than the reason that you signed them for. I've got to tell you, it's a vivid memory. I was so unprepared. It was not just the movement, but it was the spirit of it. It was electrifying. I had gone there with Lou Reed. I said, 'Lou, you've got to stay here. I have to go backstage for a private hello.' So I got to the dressing room. I remember opening the door and Bruce looking up. He said, 'Clive, did I move around enough for you tonight?'"

05 of 09

Barry Manilow

18541A2E Barry Manilow with Arista records pres. Clive Davis (R) at AFTER DARK magazine party honoring Manilow as Entertainer of the Year. 1978 BARRY MANILOW 00853524.JPG PHOTOGRAPHER FREELANCE Photo by Robin Platzer/Twin Images/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Robin Platzer/Twin Images/Time Life Pictures/Getty

"When I started Arista, I was no longer heading the number one label in the industry. It was a brand-new company, starting from scratch. I was hungry to be a major label. I needed multi-platinum, and the only way to get to be multi-platinum is with hit songs. I didn't have to wait long because the first record on Arista was 'Mandy.' I gave it to Barry Manilow. It went to number one. I was honing my ear for hit songs, and he let me choose two songs per album. There are certain records that don't require brilliant lyrics, but for Barry you're going to have to study the lyrics. It's got to touch him. And he's still singing 'Mandy' and 'I Write the Songs' 50 years later."

06 of 09

Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick and Clive Davis during Chopard Supports the G&P Foundation for Cancer Research Salute to The World of Entertainment and Media at the 2003 Angel Ball at Marriott Marquis in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Djamilla Rosa Cochran/WireImage for Chopard)
Djamilla Rosa Cochran/WireImage

"Barry Manilow would only let me choose two songs for each of his albums. I became the darling of the music publishers with 'Weekend in New England,' 'I Write the Songs,' 'Looks Like We Made It.' I had a backlog of 20 songs, and it would take 10 years before he'd get around to recording them. I said, 'This is crazy. I've got these hit songs. I need to sign an artist, preferably a female, because I don't want another male artist to be competitive to Barry.' And I approached Dionne and she said to me, 'I'm giving up the business. I haven't had a hit in years.' I said, 'I'm part of the business, I'm not giving up on you. And I have songs for you that are hits.' And I gave her 'I'll Never Love This Way Again,' which Barry produced. Ultimately 'Deja Vu,' 'Heartbreaker' and 'That's What Friends Are For' followed. She enjoyed a tremendous renaissance."

07 of 09

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin and Clive Davis (Photo by © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images) 1981
Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG/Getty

"Boy, do I remember the phone call I got from Aretha. She asked me to have dinner with her. I never knew her, but she was already the Queen of Soul. I remember pressing that button outside of her home in Encino. When we sat down after the dinner that she cooked for me, she said, 'I'm approaching 40. I haven't had a hit in two or three years. I'm very impressed with what you've just done with Dionne. Would you be available to collaborate with me? Can I have hits again?' I said, 'You're so timeless.' It sounds strange today, but I remember saying, 'Listen, that's a challenge that I'd be honored to work on and I do believe we could.' Subsequently, she had her first number one record, 'I Knew You Were Waiting for Me' with George Michael, and hits like 'Freeway of Love,' 'Jump to It' and 'Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves.' We were bonded for the rest of our lives together."

08 of 09

Patti Smith

Clive Davis at his office April 1975 with Patti Smith Credit Clive Davis personal collection Emily Bender DKC Public Relations, Marketing & Government Affairs 261 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016 T: (212) 981-5260 F: (212) 981-5460 emily_bender@dkcnews.com
Clive Davis personal collection

"Patti was riveting, different, unique. The night of my birthday party she said something that was very, very touching. She said, amid some semblance of tears, 'What I remember so vividly about our relationship, Clive, is probably best expressed by a line from another artist that you were there for — and that's Sly & the Family Stone. I need to tell you, all these years later: thank you for letting me be myself.'"

09 of 09

Whitney Houston

Clive Davis and Whitney Houston photographed at the signing of her contract with Arista Records at the Arista Studio in New York City on April 10, 1983. howard grimes of the hi rhythm section performing at the seventh annual ponderosa stomp at the house of blues held in new orleans, la on april 29, 2008. whitney houston Getty Images

"I knew that Whitney was unique and that she was a potential all-timer when I auditioned her. I had never seen her in my life. I just went into a club and she stepped to the front with two numbers during her mother's act. She sang 'The Greatest Love of All' and 'Home' from The Wiz. We were so proud of breaking the all-time record of seven consecutive songs reaching number one on the Hot 100. I'm co-producing her biopic. I want to make sure that the film does justice to her."

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