PLAYBOY: Was there a particular Springsteen song that sold you on him as a songwriter?
DAVIS: When Bruce sent me what was to be Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., I said, “You know, the quality of what you’re doing is great, and I love it, but let me just draw your attention to the fact that we need, in my opinion, one or two more songs for this to have a commercial impact.” I said, “You’ve got to be very careful when you do those. You are capable of writing great melodies as well as lyrics, but would you consider doing one or two additional songs that might be more radio-friendly, because we’re going to need them to help spread the word about you?” He took it in the right spirit. He immediately went back to the drawing board and came up with “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night.” I vividly remember listening to those two songs and being thrilled that they were being added to the album.
PLAYBOY: What artists did you have the greatest influence on as they developed?
DAVIS: Barry Manilow is one. I had just formed Arista Records when he was brought to my attention. Barry was unknown. He’d had one album that might have sold 10,000 copies. He was mainly an arranger and a piano player for Bette Midler. My appraisal of him came when he was opening for Dionne Warwick in Central Park. He was a gifted entertainer. I could see that. A gifted showman. I signed him because I thought he was unusual in his charisma and in his delivery. My plan was that I would find songs for him to record—hit songs. What I didn’t know was that the most important thing for him was songwriting. Since he considered himself a songwriter, he didn’t necessarily want to hear “You write good songs, but they aren’t hits, and you need hits—a continuity of hits.”
PLAYBOY: How did you convince him to record songs he hadn’t written?
DAVIS: He was resistant, but I was head of this brand-new company, and he had the insecurity of not knowing whether his contract would be picked up. And so he agreed.
PLAYBOY: Who else besides Manilow did you choose songs for?
DAVIS: I found so many songs that Barry couldn’t use them all. I thought, I’ve got to look for a female singer. I found Melissa Manchester. I gave her hit songs, but like Barry she also considered herself a songwriter. Her resistance to my advice led to her separating from Arista. Next I signed Dionne Warwick. That led to Aretha, and Aretha led to Whitney.
PLAYBOY: How did you begin working with Houston?
DAVIS: I signed Whitney nine years after I’d started Arista Records. She and I formed a creative partnership. I’d find 20 songs and bring them to her and together we’d narrow them down to 12 or so that she would record. From the beginning we worked like that. When you’re involved like that, you work very closely and become close—it’s an intimate relationship. I would pick the producers, supervise the albums.
PLAYBOY: As trends changed—folk rock, rock, disco, hip-hop, whatever it was—did you look for specific genres of music?
DAVIS: You follow what’s happening. You are constantly trying to determine what’s radio-friendly.
PLAYBOY: What’s the most radio-friendly music today?
DAVIS: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that today’s Top 40 is dominated by electronic dance music.
PLAYBOY: It’s followed years when hip-hop and rap emerged. What did you think when you first heard them?
DAVIS: I knew hip-hop was coming and that urban music was changing. I signed Gil Scott-Heron, who was very influential on rap. I started LaFace Records with L.A. Reid and Babyface [Kenneth Edmonds], who wrote for TLC, Usher and Outkast, which became a real hip-hop breakthrough.
PLAYBOY: You had LaFace, so why did you next enter into a relationship with Sean Combs, forming a new rap label, Bad Boy Records?
DAVIS: His mission was really to develop the creative hip-hop revolution, and he did that. When we met, all of what he played for me was unique and special. He had Craig Mack’s single “Flava in Ya Ear” that he played for me, and he had about four or five cuts from the Notorious B.I.G. He also had this vision for hip-hop to become the music of our time. I like ambition. I liked the largeness of his perspective. I was working with someone who was close to the streets, far closer than I was and closer than anything I had as part of my arsenal. Both L.A. and I knew we needed to get to the streets, and partnering with Puffy was the best way to do that.
PLAYBOY: As violence broke out between the East Coast label Bad Boy Records and the West Coast–based Death Row Records, were you ever threatened? There were casualties on both sides, including Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.
DAVIS: The tragedy of the killings and the violence were horrifying. But I never had a bodyguard. Looking back, it shocks me that I was not aware of any lurking danger.
PLAYBOY: Whether at Columbia, Arista, J Records—another label you created—and then Sony, though you kept on top of new music, you continued to work with older stars such as Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow. Was it for nostalgia’s sake?
DAVIS: Aretha is a national treasure and has the greatest voice in the world. Some talents transcend a given moment. Why shouldn’t Aretha continue on the radio? Radio was not hospitable to a song like “Respect,” but I was able to extend her many, many years, and we’re now working on an album. You find a way to do something different with them to make them relevant. It happened with Rod Stewart and Santana too.
PLAYBOY: You’ve managed to keep some older artists relevant but not necessarily the older technology. When you started out, music was on vinyl. Vinyl is making a minor retro comeback, but it was essentially pushed aside by eight-track tapes, cassette tapes, CDs and then digital music. How do you stay ahead of these evolving technologies, and how do you know which ones to bet on?
DAVIS: I never spent any time in the technological world. I’ve concentrated only on the music. The demand had to be there for your music. The format didn’t matter.
PLAYBOY: When Apple launched iTunes, some record companies wouldn’t sign on at first. It was years before the Beatles allowed their music to be sold on iTunes. Were you resistant when it launched?
DAVIS: No, because you can’t fight change, nor should you. You embrace it.
PLAYBOY: How concerned are you about illegal downloading of records? The industry has fought pirating since it went after and eventually shut down Napster, yet people download billions of dollars worth of music a year.
DAVIS: It’s damaging. There’s a public perception that you should get music for free. That perception is tremendously threatening. I just read that even with the availability of iTunes, more music than ever is pirated. The New York Times said there’s more piracy through file-sharing networks than what is sold legitimately. That is scary, a major concern.