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CLIVE: BEHIND
THE MUSIC

 

Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives opened in April at the Tribeca Film Festival and was later picked up by Apple Music, which will premiere the documentary Tuesday (10/3) as an exclusive, following previous exclusive offerings including Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour film, The Cash Money Story: Before Anythang and 808: The Movie.

Based on Davis’ autobiography, the film chronicles his destiny from the first shot into the record business beginning at Columbia, to the path of success forward, always rooted in his giddy, genuine enthusiasm for music and the artists who make it. Clive’s ability to masterfully nurture an artist is uncanny, but he does it by morphing their innate talents with his gift for identifying not just hits, but many times, breakthrough songs. Ears. This is the primary secret of his success. Beginning professional life as an attorney, “It never, ever occurred to me to do this for a living,” he recalls about his early work, “but I soon realized that I had a talent that I never knew about before.”

The film also takes a well-rounded view of how Davis operates with various people in his inner circle, from his family to his co-workers and the countless artists he developed. The doc illuminates how Clive inspires the best out of the people around him, a skill that is paramount to his success as the world’s Most Successful Record Company Executive. And the film also made the equally intimate observation on what core values drive the work ethic of an achiever at that level (in this case legendary) and for Davis, this approach was lit by the death of his parents at a very young age.

Seize the Day, all 24 hours of it. That was my experience in the brief but eternally memorable year I spent working with Clive Davis, at the onset of his iconic chapter at J Records. Clive was a personal career aspiration partly because one of my mentors, Keith Naftaly, his protégé Hosh Gureli, and my protégé Larry Jackson were all at the time working for him in A&R. Clearly, this was some sort of magical place—right?

Well, as both Larry and Keith (and Peter Edge) pointed out in this documentary—uh, sort of.

There was always an underlying energetic joy to every day’s business at J Records for sure, but make no mistake it was hard and exacting work. Clive’s building was a laser-focused, high-achievement, perfection-seeking, entire-life-demanding, personally invested workflow. It was cover every detail, know every fact, explore every opportunity, demand absolute excellence, sourcing the best in class level of work flow. “Hours that can be…excessive,” Naftaly gingerly mentions in the doc. “He can be a bit of an addict—a hit addict,” said Jackson.

Some found Clive intimidating to work with, but I found him to be a charismatic and inspiringly creative force of personality who had captured my heart, even under conditions of extreme torture at times. But all told, he really is about the music, the artists and the writer/producers—and he truly is a unicorn, getting about three hours of sleep a night, no lies.

Whether it was being called in to hear a new song or remix (never not thrilling, people), advising me and Larry to go to Broadway “for culture,” or reviewing my fashions for the day (oh yes), Clive kept you on your toes in his presence. One time during a conversation before a listening session in his office, he chided me when I admitted to not finishing college. “I would have never let one of my children drop out of college,” he informed me, “I can’t believe your parents let you do that!” I told him my mother let me do this because I promised her I would make it, that I would go all the way. Clive was amused. “Well, did you?” he scoffed. To which I replied, “I’m sitting here in front of you right now, aren’t I?”

He burst out laughing.

And yeah, my sassy Italian ass did indeed irritate Clive occasionally. I disagreed about the potential of a song or two being worked at Rhythm and was playfully admonished in the luncheon after blacking out on a program director who was a pivotal add, but didn’t understand the true potential of Alicia Keys, the next great superstar R&B artist and the other main reason I was at J Records. I’m not exactly known for subtlety or gentleness in my delivery overall, unfortunately (shout-out to Richard Palmese for his patience and tolerance); I’m more along the lines of a Cardi B level of battle axe. Which Clive embraced. Why I love him. Under crazy management duress as he was relying on my expertise about an artist’s single decision, I dug in, in opposition to the reluctant manager, for a path that ultimately did lead to us having a #1 Rhythm record. This was my job. I considered working for him a great honor, so I was going to tell the man the truth based on my knowledge, not what he wants to hear.

But my favorite memory, was when I submitted, unsolicited, a long-written report (always a writer!) and got the red-pen “excellent” remarks back, with orders to follow that up the same every week. This man recognizes passion no matter what form it is in.

I was with Clive but a fleeting minute; can’t help but feel proud and happy for Larry and Keith in getting a moment in this documentary, too, as Davis’ close collaborators for so many hardworking years. Keith was an active A&R person from day one; he scouted and developed all of us, after all, and created the blueprint of the radio album, except his stars were cast on FM instead of on CD. That’s what KMEL was. Keith’s “For Artists, by Artists” philosphy was the playbook I learned from and carried on at 92.3 The Beat and later, KMEL, where I taught this philosophy to Larry Jackson. Who went on to master class at the label with Clive and now is manifesting the playbook in his own way creatively at Apple Music. The artists, their music and ability to identify the songs and artists first—all achieved via the innate talent of The Ears. You cannot teach this ability; you either you have it or you don’t.

And that is the genius of Clive Davis, the true core of his success: a genuine love of music, with the instinctual ability to identify, from a gut level, a real hit song. The lesson is that being early on the right records is how you move the crowd.

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