When the first CD was released in 1982, it wasn’t named after Clive Davis, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it had been. Davis is the most influential and successful record company executive in the history of the music business. It’s difficult to think of a megastar or band he hasn’t worked with. He discovered, nurtured, produced and/or promoted Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead, Billy Joel, Simon & Garfunkel, Santana, Alicia Keys, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, Puff Daddy, Loggins and Messina, Pink Floyd, Kenny G, Christina Aguilera, Harry Connick Jr., Patti Smith, American Idol singers Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson, Foo Fighters, Dave Matthews Band, the Kinks, Luther Vandross and many others. Whitney Houston, one of the stars with whom he was closest, called him her industry father.
Davis grew up in a middle-class family in Brooklyn. His parents died when he was a teenager. Orphaned and poor, he went on to receive full scholarships to NYU and then Harvard Law School. After graduating he became an attorney at CBS, which owned Columbia Records. Before long, he was running the label. The first act he acquired for Columbia was the legendary Janis Joplin, who, after the deal was signed, famously propositioned him, “You and I are connected.… We are an intimate part of each other’s life now.” And, as Davis once put it, “she used the common four-letter street term for us to get together more intimately than the signing of a contract.”
Over the years, other prominent music-business executives fell by the wayside as the industry went through seismic changes—LPs, eight-track tapes, cassettes, CDs, iTunes and the internet. Piracy cut into sales, and companies merged, bought one another and, often, disappeared. Davis, however, thrived. He ran Columbia, founded Arista and J Records, partnered with Puff Daddy on Bad Boy Records, collected four Grammys and two honorary awards from the Recording Academy, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and endowed the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU. Each year for almost 40 years, Davis, who has four children, has thrown a now-legendary pre–Grammy Awards party, which almost every name star has attended. This year he released his second autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life. In an industry that would seem to be a young man’s game, 80-year-old Davis is chief creative officer of Sony Music, which is producing new albums by Jennifer Hudson, Aretha Franklin and X Factor winner Melanie Amaro, among others. He’s also working on a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady.
Contributing Editor David Sheff, who has conducted Playboy Interviews with musicians including John Lennon, Sting, Frank Zappa and Billy Joel, met Davis at his penthouse office in the Manhattan Sony building. Sheff reports: “At 80, Davis seems in better shape than the music business, which is struggling to reinvent itself in the era of iTunes, Spotify and profligate illegal downloading. Though he’s worked with countless artists—the biggest names of our time—he clearly had a particularly close relationship with Houston. When he spoke about her, he became wistful.”
PLAYBOY: By all accounts you were more than colleagues with Whitney Houston. You were friends. Where were you when you heard that she’d died?
DAVIS: I was in Los Angeles. It was before the Grammys and my annual party.
PLAYBOY: Were you blindsided?
DAVIS: It was a complete shock, shattering.
PLAYBOY: In 2009 Houston appeared on Oprah and admitted she had a drug problem—she was addicted to marijuana and freebase cocaine—but she’d gone through rehab and was clean. When you saw her prior to the Grammys, did you detect that she was using again?
DAVIS: I’ve read there was behavior that hinted there was a problem, but she was quite coherent with me that whole week. Her spirits were great. She was very much looking forward to coming to the party. There was no indication of drugs.
PLAYBOY: Were there no red flags at all?
DAVIS: As I said, she was coherent and there was no indication of drugs, but of course she did have a problem with cigarettes. We were trying to get her to stop smoking. We were working with her on that.
PLAYBOY: Cigarettes would seem to be a trivial concern for someone with a history of serious drug problems.
DAVIS: It was a serious problem because it affected her singing—the upper range of her singing. She would say, “I kicked the drug habit, but this is more difficult.” She had cut back on cigarettes, but the week she died she came to my bungalow and said, “I understand I can’t just cut back. I’ve got to stop. I promise I will.”
PLAYBOY: Earlier, when she admitted her addiction, had you been aware of the extent of her drug use?
DAVIS: I signed her in 1983 but only became aware of any problem in maybe the mid-1990s. By that time we had quite a successful collaboration going. We were very close. Many artists come with their songs, and you might steer them, help them find a producer, suggest songs, but when you’re more involved, producing the albums, supervising them, and you spend much more time on the firing line with them, it does lead to a close relationship. In spite of that, I didn’t know she was in trouble. I didn’t know how bad her problem was. It was after a Michael Jackson concert at Madison Square Garden in the late 1990s when I knew. She showed up ghastly thin. I met with her. I did what I could.
PLAYBOY: Which was?
DAVIS: She called me her industry father, and I felt like that. We talked about the drugs she was using, but that doesn’t mean she could respond to my concerns, because you can’t deal with drugs in a logical way—you can’t just talk to a person and ask them to stop. It doesn’t work that way. A person has to get an awareness of their problem.
PLAYBOY: Was she aware?
DAVIS: Not then, or maybe she didn’t want to admit it to me. They say a person has to sink to the bottom. Whether they do or not, I don’t know. But I tried to help her. I tried to work with the family to help her. She did better for a long time, at least as far as I knew.
PLAYBOY: Your annual Grammy party was scheduled to begin hours after you learned that she’d died. Did you consider canceling it?
DAVIS: It didn’t occur to me. She loved that evening. She had come to the party every year for I don’t know how long. She performed or was a guest at it. An evening devoted to music was something she loved.
PLAYBOY: Was it difficult for you to fulfill your role as host?
DAVIS: Yes. The challenge for me as MC was to muster the energy to do what I had to do. I was stunned, but I had to do it. I knew everything had changed, of course. We turned the evening into a tribute to her. And it went on. The show must go on, right? You’ve got to do what’s appropriate in her memory, and that is what we did.
PLAYBOY: Houston is one of many performers who died young, many of them because of drugs. In fact, the first act you signed, Janis Joplin, overdosed and died. Were you aware of her drug and alcohol problems?
DAVIS: No. That degree of closeness was never there with Janis. I knew she drank Jack Daniel’s, but it never dawned on me that there was a serious drug problem. I think the only artist during that era whose problem I knew about was Sly [of Sly and the Family Stone]. I knew him as an industrious, energetic guy who called me at home on weekends, and when he’d make plans to go to the studio, he wouldn’t show up. But I was so green when it came to drugs. I didn’t really know about them then. When people visit the head of a record company, they’re usually on their best behavior, even artists. They would keep that away from me, so I never saw that side. There was nothing in my relationship with Janis or with Sly that prepared me for the severity of her death or for his ultimate involuntary retirement.
PLAYBOY: More recently, Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse both died because of substance abuse. Earlier there was Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix and many others. Is there a particular kind of pressure in the music business that has led so many stars to self-destruct? Is it the fame or the scrutiny they’re under? Is it a false sense of invulnerability? Entitlement? Or are artists in general more sensitive and therefore more prone to use drugs to cope?
DAVIS: I don’t know if it’s harder for people in the music business than in any other business. I don’t know what the statistics would show. Do more people in this business struggle in life? Do they have more problems with drugs? I don’t know. Yes, there are people who died, but there are many who live long lives and have careers that extend over their lives. People like Bruce Springsteen. There are many. I don’t think the music business has more casualties compared with film or TV. I’m reading these stories about Macaulay Culkin. There was Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe. What about writers? There are certainly great writers who had alcohol problems—Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.