Today is the 82nd birthday of record executive Clive Davis, who for nearly half a century has been at the head of one major music company or another – the man who brought us, among many others, Janis Joplin, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Barry Manilow, Lynn Anderson, Whitney Houston, Puff Daddy and Alicia Keys.
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You’re wondering who Lynn Anderson is? It was she who in 1970 recorded “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden,” which Davis chose to be the first single released from her then-forthcoming album. That LP, “Rose Garden,” remained the biggest-selling disc by a female country singer for the next 27 years.
Clive Jay Davis was born April 4, 1932, in Brooklyn, New York, and spent most of his childhood in the borough’s Crown Heights section. Both of his parents – Herman Davis, an electrician who later became a traveling tie salesman, and the former Florence Brooks – were American-born Jews, although Herman’s father and mother came from Minsk and Pinsk, respectively.
Davis had a happy, lower-middle-class upbringing, and graduated from Erasmus Hall High School at the top of his class (he also recounted in a recent memoir how he was “mayor of my class” each year). While he was a college student at New York University, which he attended on a full scholarship, Davis lost both of his parents over the course of 11 months. NYU was followed by a scholarship (CK) to Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1956.
Davis did not set out to work in the entertainment business. One of his jobs after law school, however, was at a law firm that had CBS as a client. That led to an offer to work at CBS Records, which in 1967 made him its president. That June, a buttoned-up Clive Davis attended the Monterey Pop Festival, which he said was like an “epiphany” for him. So impressed was he by the performance of Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company that he signed them for CBS on the spot. (So excited was Joplin by the deal that she invited him to “consummate” their new relationship, an offer he politely declined.)
He headed CBS for six years, and doubled the label’s market share by taking on rock acts like Springsteen, Chicago, Pink Floyd and Earth, Wind and Fire. But in 1973, his employer fired Davis, alleging that he had used company funds – $94,000 of it – to pay for his son’s bar mitzvah and personal travel. Davis eventually refuted nearly all of the charges.
Two years later, he founded his own record label, Arista (named for the New York high school honor society he had belonged to,) which signed such artists as Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow (who has said of him, “Clive has the mind of a bank executive and the ears of a teenager”) and the Grateful Dead, and introduced Whitney Houston to the world.
At the time of writing, Davis is the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, whose record labels include Columbia, RCA and Epic.
Davis’ two marriages – both of which ended in divorce – resulted in four grown children. In his 2013 memoir, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” Davis acknowledged that he has lived as a bisexual since 1985, and that he has been involved in a serious relationship with a male partner since 2004. Bisexuality, he told an interviewer at the time, is “maligned and misunderstood.”