Q&A: Clive Davis on Whitney, Aretha and Spat With Kelly Clarkson
Clive Davis, Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images For The Recording Academy
At 80, Clive Davis, the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, isn't close to his last dance. The longtime record executive – who headed Columbia, Arista and J during his storied career, working with everyone from Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen through Patti Smith, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys – is working on new albums with Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson, as well as mounting a revival of My Fair Lady on Broadway, possibly next year. He's also just published his second, even more expansive memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life (Simon & Schuster), which chronicles his entire career and touches on his creative and personal interactions with what amounts to an entire wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Davis sat down in his Sony office to talk about the making of the book and some of its revelations.
Why write the book now?
You have the opportunity to say, "These are the facts." I never felt beleaguered, but I wanted the accurate story out there. My first book [Clive: Inside the Record Business, 1975] is about a short period of my professional life. When I did that book, the immediate reaction was one of speculation and suspicion: "Did this lawyer really discover these artists, or is he just claiming credit?" But what I did at Columbia was the blueprint for what I did at Arista. Say what you will about Barry Manilow, but he's playing at the St. James Theatre on Broadway for a month or longer. His songs are now part of the standards that came out of the Seventies and Eighties. Whitney's songs are similarly standards. I could go on and on about the songs on which I've been a creative partner.
In the book, you discuss your bisexuality for the first time. What made you want to detail that part of your life?
My family knew and my closest friends knew. But bisexuality is and was misunderstood: "You're either gay or straight or you're lying." But that's not true. Maybe I should have had the courage earlier to air the issue. But I knew I would air it when I wrote my autobiography. It was a no-brainer.
What do you want readers to take from your chapter on Whitney Houston, which details her struggles as you saw them?
Several things. There's the joy of the discovery of a talent that will last forever. The songs that marked her career that will live forever. The perils of fame. The power of drugs. Reading all the tabloid reports, they never touched on who she was. She was a really good woman, to the core. She listened to music hours every day. There were questions, like, "Did you ever speak to Whitney or give her advice?" So I chose to reveal a few letters I wrote to her.
You say it was the "most difficult" part of the book to write.
It's been a painful period. It still is a painful period. Unless someone sinks to that level that they want to help themselves, nothing will help the situation. I was clear – I said, "Trust me. Look how you've trusted me with songs. Trust me – you will not make it." For a while, I did believe that she stopped drugs when she did the Oprah interview. The hoarseness you hear is from heavy cigarette smoke. I knew she would get her voice back. When she came to my bungalow the very week she died, she said, for the first time, regarding cigarette smoking, "I will not just cut back – the cigarette smoking will end and I will be ready." There was no comprehension on her part or my part that she was flirting with death.