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The Soundtrack of His Life

Clive Davis recalls his years as a music industry hit-maker

Apr. 26, 2013
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Clive Davis’ memoir The Soundtrack of My Life (Simon & Schuster) is a hefty 586 pages of thoughtful, analytical content—an unexpected pleasure from one of the most powerful and influential music executives in history.

As head of Columbia Records in the 1960s, Davis signed many of the era’s important stars, including Janis Joplin. Then, with Arista and J Records, he signed Patti Smith and redesigned the careers of The Kinks and The Grateful Dead. He made Whitney Houston into a megastar and certainly was involved in hip-hop going mainstream.

Growing up Jewish in Brooklyn during the 1930s, and going through New York University and Harvard Law School, Davis is the ultimate blend of street cat and corporate lion. Practicing law bored him until Columbia made him legal counsel, which became a steppingstone toward running the label. Fired after accusations of expense account anomalies in 1973, he founded Arista. J Records came in 2000 and in 2005 merged with Arista, capturing both proven artists and others that come spinning off “American Idol.”

From Barry Manilow and Kenny G to Rod Stewart and Kelly Clarkson, from Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys, Davis has proven his instinctual ability to fill the charts with hit-makers. His groundbreaking work with The Dead, Joplin, Smith and Springsteen—to cite essential core artists with whom he painstakingly worked to develop artistry as well as longevity in an otherwise disposable pop venue—is where The Soundtrack of My Life becomes much more than the story of one man’s irrefutably immense career.

A natural educator, Davis elegantly defines differences between rock and pop, counterculture and mass appeal, while realizing that music outside the mainstream can ultimately find larger audiences. He shows no elitism, but keeps a clear line drawn between the fine art capabilities of rock music and the flimsy but endearing capabilities of pop.

Being solidly in the music business, he is of course going to profit at both ends of the sonic spectrum. But Davis clearly appreciates the cultural importance of, say, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, versus the mutability of Barry Manilow and Kelly Clarkson.

The Soundtrack Of My Life contains little about Davis’ personal life. If anything, it contains sincere revelations relating more to the human condition than business gossip, and for this we come to respect this dedicated, erudite hustler whose legacy is that of both art curator and hit-maker.   


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