In the introduction to his ultra-comprehensive 586-page memoir The Soundtrack of My Life (Simon & Schuster, $30, illustrations), Clive Davis mentions Fillmore West and Fillmore East impresario Bill Graham, whose motto was "I don't give the public what it wants, I give the public what it should want."
I don't bring this up right off the bat because throughout the book Davis has written (with Anthony DeCurtis), the account of his modus operandi as a phenomenally successful music mogul indicates he more closely hewed to the give-the-public-want-it-wants approach; I site it because a kind of quasi-encounter I had with Davis took place one Janis Joplin-headlining night at the Fillmore East.
I was there in my capacity as reviewer for the now-defunct trade magazine Record World, where as associate editor I had been one of the first in the industry -- if not the very first -- to interview Davis when in 1965, Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson appointed him an administrative assistant, which, he explains "essentially meant that I would be overseeing all of Columbia Records."
Since he was a lawyer, Davis's selection was highly unusual at the time, and I was aware the music-biz readers I'd be reaching would want to hear what the new appointee knew about running a music label. He probably said something akin to what he says in these pages: "I'm sure [Lieberson] didn't offer me Columbia Records because he believed I had some special musical talent. Hell, I [his italics] didn't realize I had any special musical talent back then."
But on to that Fillmore East late show where I was sitting in an aisle seat waiting for Joplin to hit the stage. Suddenly, I became aware of a flashlight being focused on the floor around my feet. I looked up at an usher who asked if I'd noticed a pair of rubbers there. I hadn't, but just then he spotted what he was looking for. He said, "This gentleman left them after the early show." I looked behind him to see who "this gentleman" was: Clive Davis.
I recount the incident for a couple of reasons. The first: Davis is, and was, a Joplin fan (more about which later), and it impressed me as a fellow Joplin idolizer that only minutes before, he'd vacated the seat I occupied. The second reason: As significant as Davis has been to music for 50 years, I never think of him without that scene replaying in my head. Here was a man already widely known as an important tastemaker and beginning to be paid handsomely for that talent. He had the wherewithal to purchase replacement rubbers many times over, but had been brought up not to leave behind rubbers for whom someone had paid good money.
Indeed, it's that very concern about doing what's right that can be detected in the way Davis and DeCurtis have put together this volume. As a reader progresses through these pages covering what feels like every transaction in which Davis has figured, every contract with which he's dealt, every party he's given, every artist, A&R man, every songwriter, every party, every you-name-it he's known, you can almost hear him thinking that a good person doesn't leave anything or anyone out -- just as a good person never lets a single pair of rubbers go to waste.
Yes, it's all here and more -- to an almost egotistical fault. Likely the first thing general readers will want to know -- as opposed to those in the trade wanting to know everything and perhaps taking issue with some of it from their perspectives -- is the details of Davis's relationship with the late Whitney Houston. He begins, "Without question, this is the most difficult chapter to write." But write it he does, including one unflinchingly straightforward letter he wrote her about substance abuse. Short of joining Alanon on her behalf -- or his behalf, as Alanon members have it -- he recalls what he did in thousands of words, concluding ironically, "Whitney's loss grieves me more than I can say."
Houston's early demise echoes, of course, the loss of someone on the same self-destructive path at an even younger age. According to Davis, Janis Joplin served him almost the same as the Damascus Road served Paul. It was seeing her at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival that made him understand he had a talent for hearing not only what appealed to him, but what would potentially appeal to millions.
Davis repeats his pursuit of Joplin -- who'd already released a disappointing mainstream album with Big Brother and the Holding Company -- and the subsequent checkered dealings that ended with her overdose death in 1970 at 27. (In Myra Friedman's superb Joplin biography Buried Alive, she describes an important incident at Joplin's New York press introduction that Davis doesn't look back on but one that dogged Joplin for the remainder of her life.)
Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys all receive attention in the voluminous catchall -- every one of them often discussed in relation to Davis's abiding belief that what fuels the music business first, last and always is the hit song. Those who don't see it his way -- like Kelly Clarkson, who gets the book's only muted slam -- often have their failure to prolong a career attributed to that blind spot. Many, however, who've differed with him (and who show up alongside him in the myriad photographs for which he's posed) are still thanked for their warmth -- "warmth" being a noun and "warm" an adjective that repeatedly return.
By the way, The Soundtrack of My Life is clearly a recollection of Davis's extensive professional experiences. Although he makes a point of saying no one should assume he doesn't have a rewarding family life, he saves that admonition for a final chapter where he goes into some, but not much, detail about his two marriages, his four children and his current happy relationship with a (not named) man.
Clive Davis has made phenomenal music, but as he indefatigably tells it, most of the metaphorical hit songs have been the partnerships at Columbia, Arista, J, RCA, BMG and Sony with Whitney Houston et al.