Portrait of Clive Davis in a red velvet three-piece suit

Clive Davis (WSC ’53, HON ’11)

Hit Man

Clive Davis is that rare genius lionized in his day. For over half a century, he has influenced the soundtrack for billions globally thanks to his gift, grit, and gusto. In recorded music, this Brooklyn kid turned Man with the Golden Ear is second to none.

Written by Dulcy Israel
Portrait by Roberto Parada

In his white slacks and tennis sweater, Clive Davis (WSC ’53, HON ’11) must have looked out of place among the spectators at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. But the 35-year-old record exec knew he was exactly where he needed to be to help mobilize a musical revolution. “I was blown away,” Davis recalls in one of several video installations at the Tisch School of the Arts’ Clive Davis Gallery, dedicated to his achievements. “As soon as Janis Joplin came on stage, I mean, she was hypnotic.” Davis signed Joplin that day.
            At the time of the festival, Davis was an alumnus of both NYU’s Washington Square College and Harvard Law School who had become president of Columbia Records after a stint in its legal department. His surprise at being appointed to that position was followed by the equally startling discovery that he possessed a seemingly preternatural ability for divining talent and a radio-ready hit.
            After his tenure at Columbia, Davis founded Arista Records in 1974 and then J Records in 2000; the latter morphed first into Sony Music Entertainment and later RCA Records. Regardless of the label, Davis had the uncanny knack for kickstarting (and, when necessary, restarting) the music careers of many of the most celebrated artists in rock, pop, soul, country, and R&B.
            On April 5, 2022—the day after the icon’s 90th birthday—the new Clive Davis Gallery opened its doors (see The House That Clive Built slideshow below). The permanent installations and temporary exhibits alike offer a fascinating retrospective of a VIP whose Rolodex (on view) could set off a bidding war. “When you walk in, you’ll see the original Arista gold lettering that adorned the building at 6 West 57th Street,” explains Jason King, former chair of Tisch’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, who assisted in the gallery’s development. “The timeline of names of artists that he’s worked with is astounding because it really describes a good part of the second-half-of-the-20th-century and 21st-century superstars in pop music.” Open to the public with free admission, the gallery offers visitors earbuds for plugging into the multiple video kiosks featuring interviews and music snippets.
            But retrospective does not mean retirement. “Clive Davis is chief creative officer of Sony Music,” says King. “He remains just as active as ever.”

The House That Clive Built

Clive Davis Gallery
370 Jay St. Brooklyn, NY
Tuesday–Saturday, 11:00 A.M.–6:00 P.M.
Free and open to the public

The Company Clive Keeps

Collage of Davis with superstar music icons

1. Miles Davis, 1970. The trumpeter gave the record exec this outfit to wear to one of the shows that resulted in the album Miles Davis at Fillmore, saying, “I want you to look special.”

2. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, 1970. “When I heard ‘Bridge over Troubled Water,’ I was flabbergasted,” Davis said. “To this day, it’s my all-time favorite pop song.”

3. Prince, 1999!

4. Barry Manilow, 1978. Davis inaugurated Arista with the album Barry Manilow II, selecting as its first single “Mandy”­—which shot to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

5. Pharrell Williams, 2004, who hosted a master class at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

6. Johnny Cash, ca. 1960.

7. The Grateful Dead, 1977. “Clive was the one suit we weren’t distrustful of,” the band’s guitarist Bob Weir said in the documentary The Soundtrack of Our Lives.

8. Bruce Springsteen, 1974. Asked to name one thing everyone should experience, Davis replied, “Bruce Springsteen live.”

9. Sly Stone, 1972.

10. Whitney Houston, 1983. “She would only sign if she was given a clause that stated she would only work with me,” Davis wrote. “If I were to leave the company, she could leave as well.”

11. Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, 2018, at Davis’ legendary pre-Grammys party he has hosted since 1976.

Photos: Courtesy of Sony Music Archives (Miles Davis, Simon & Garfunkel); Ron Galella/Wireimage/Getty Images (Prince); Robin Platzer/the Chronicle Collection/Getty Images (Manilow); L. Busacca/Wireimage/Getty Images (Williams); Colin Escott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (Cash); courtesy of Clivedavis.com (Grateful Dead); ©Peter Cunningham (Springsteen); Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (Stone); Ebet Roberts/Premium Archive/Getty Images (Houston); Michael Kovac/Getty Images (Keys and Jay-Z)

And More

Collage of Davis with more superstar music icons

1. Aretha Franklin, 1981. When the Queen of Soul met Davis in 1979, she was nervous that she was past her chart-topping years. His reply: “You’re timeless.”

2. Santana, 1970. Davis coproduced the group’s Supernatural (1999), which won nine Grammys.

3. Diana Ross, 1976.

4. Patti Smith, 1975. Davis signed the singer now known as the punk poet laureate after seeing her at the club CBGB.

5. The Kinks, 1976.

6. Elton John, 1977.

7. Gil Scott-Heron and Stevie Wonder, 1985.

8. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, 1976.

9. Donovan, 1966.

10. Janis Joplin, 1969. “I think it was a little too formal and maybe corporate just to sign a document to say we’d be working together,” Davis recalls of signing the singer, “so she asked to sleep with me to make it more personal. I took it as a big compliment, although I turned it down.”

11. Davis at home in Beverly Hills, California, sometime in the 1970s.

Photos: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis Historical/Getty Images (Franklin); courtesy of Clivedavis.com (Santana, Smith, Donovan, and Joplin); ©Lisa Tanner (Ross, Stanley, and Simmons); Dick Barnatt/Redferns/Getty Images (Kinks); New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images (John); Everett Collection/Bridgeman Images (Scott-Heron and Wonder); Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (dog).