The Hit Man

Clive Davis has been helping to make and break records since he joined the music biz back in the ’60s. A new Downtown Brooklyn gallery recaps the career of the multi-hit wonder.

A photo inside the gallery of a black wall covered in many different albums from Arista Records

In his neat white slacks and prim tennis sweater, Clive Davis (WSC ’53, HON ’11) had to have looked out of place among the free-spirited spectators at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. But the then-35-year-old record exec was exactly where he needed to be to help mobilize a musical revolution—and its continued evolution. “I was blown away,” Davis recalls in one of several video installations at NYU’s new Downtown Brooklyn gallery dedicated to his achievements. “As soon as Janis Joplin came on stage, I mean, she was hypnotic.” 

That day Davis signed Janis Joplin. She was his first. He then went on to sign and/or mentor the likes of Carlos Santana, Simon & Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Outkast, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, the Strokes, Maroon 5, Jennifer Hudson, and Wyclef Jean, among others.

At the time of the three-day festival, Davis was an NYU and Harvard Law alum who had been running CBS Records for two years after working as counsel at the company. His surprise at being appointed to the position was followed by the equally startling discovery that he possessed a gift for divining talent and a radio-ready hit, and he proceeded to kickstart—and occasionally restart—the careers of countless rock, soul, country, and R&B icons at Columbia, Arista Records, and J Records/Sony. The names of the musicians he’s discovered and/or developed are too numerous to fit on a dedicated wall at the Clive Davis Gallery, which opened earlier this year in conjunction with Davis’s 90th birthday. “Believe me,” says Jason King, chair and founding director of NYU Tisch’s ​​Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, who assisted the gallery’s design team, “it was very hard to limit the number of artists he’s worked with just to 30.”

A photo of Jason King standing next to Barry Manilow as he looks at a wall of memorabilia on display in the gallery

Jason King (left) views memorabilia at the gallery’s opening with Barry Manilow. Clive Davis inaugurated his label Arista Records in 1974 with Manilow’s second album—selecting “Mandy” as its first single, which went straight to No. 1.

The permanent and temporary exhibit spaces housed at 370 Jay Street offer a captivating multimedia look at a man whose Rolodex (on view) could set off a bidding war. “The permanent space is basically a retrospective of Clive Davis’s amazing career since the 1960s,” explains King. “When you walk in, you’ll see the original Arista gold lettering that adorned the building at 6 West 57th Street. There’s a timeline of names of artists that he’s worked with, which is astounding because it really describes a good part of the second half of the 20th-century and 21st-century superstars in pop music. Then there are individual walls for artists that he worked with who’ve gone on to great significance.” The gallery is open to the public and each visitor is provided with a set of earbuds for plugging into the multiple video kiosks featuring interviews and music snippets. 

Above the gallery is NYU’s Clive Davis Institute, recently relocated from Mercer Street, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. The institute’s cutting-edge acoustic design and rehearsal studios, production and edit suites, practice rooms, and classrooms with exceptional surround sound speaker systems are a natural outgrowth of Davis’s commitment to bring up generations of performers—and maybe a few future Clive Davises.

But retrospective does not mean retirement for Davis. “He’s chief creative officer of Sony Music at 90 years old,” says King. “He’s very on his game and really interested in the fine details of his projects and how they come together. He remains just as active as ever.”

A photo of Clive Davis standing next to a bronze bust of himself on display in the gallery

Before There Was Woodstock 

Davis attended the Monterey Pop Festival at the urging of a friend and found his future there. In the months that followed his signing of Janis Joplin—who suggested that they seal the deal in bed, an offer that he respectfully turned down—Davis brought Mike Bloomfield’s band the Electric Flag and Blood Sweat and Tears into the Columbia Records fold. “It was only [through] the building of a track record that it became evident that I might have a natural gift that I never knew I had,” Davis says in a gallery video. Paul Simon concurred: “I thought he was a smart guy. I didn’t know what his musical abilities were because he was coming out of law. But the big surprise of Clive Davis is that he became a musical force in the record business.”

A photo inside the gallery of a long bright pink wall covered in photos and memorabilia from Clive Davis’s career

Wall of Sound

The gallery not only celebrates Davis’s discovery of seminal performers but also his involvement in the actual making of records. “There’s a component that’s dedicated to the work that he does creatively with artists,” says King. “It is a little bit unusual for a music executive to work at [this] level creatively to help shape their demos and turn their early demos into hits.” But Davis had an uncanny ability to match an artist to a song. When he and Dionne Warwick, then on the brink of retirement, bumped into each other as guests on the Dinah & Friends television show, he convinced her to join Arista and offered her the tune “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” The single went platinum and earned two Grammys.

A closeup photo of the pink gallery wall, which shows Santana’s guitar hanging alongside many photos of Clive Davis with artists like Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, Santana, Usher, and Wyclef Jean, among others

Staging a Comeback

Davis signed Carlos Santana in 1968 to Columbia Records, where Santana’s first three albums went multiplatinum. And in 1997, he added him to Arista’s roster. Reinventing the guitar virtuoso, whose sales had slumped, was achieved by pairing “vintage Santana” with “the best young great musicians.” Collaborations with Rob Thomas, Dave Matthews, Lauryn Hill, CeeLo Green, and others earned Santana’s Supernatural nine Grammys, including Album of the Year. Santana’s gift of a guitar (above) shares space with artifacts sourced largely from Davis’s home, office, and the Sony Records Archives. “A lot of work was done over the years to consolidate that material and get it into one place for the first time,” says King. “It’s never been shown like this before.”

A photo inside the gallery with the trophy wall in the background behind a long display case containing various letters and correspondence from Clive Davis’s career. There is also a TV screen in the background with a video of Alicia Keys playing the piano

Man of Letters

A case holds coveted invitations to Davis’s annual star-studded pre-Grammy party, along with correspondence to and from the music man. “There’s all kinds of never-seen-before letters that he’s written,” says King. Among the missives are Aretha Franklin’s sympathy note to Davis after Whitney Houston’s passing, Davis’s letter to Oprah Winfrey outlining the qualities of his latest discovery—a then-20-year-old Alicia Keys—and Davis’s condolence letter to Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs following Notorious B.I.G.’s death (it was rap songs by Biggie and Carl Mack that inspired Davis to invest in Puffy’s Bad Boy label).

A closeup photo of the gallery’s trophy wall, which shows some awards alongside albums and photos of Whitney Houston

Breaking Barriers and Records

Davis discovered Whitney Houston as a 19-year-old singing with her mother, Cissy Houston. Her first two albums, featuring songs carefully chosen by Houston and Davis, became two of the best-selling albums of all time and she broke the Beatles’ record for greatest number of consecutive No. 1 singles. At the gallery’s launch party, students from the Clive Davis Institute regaled the man of the moment with a spontaneous jam of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” The song also serves as the title of an upcoming biopic about the pop icon, in which Davis will be played by actor Stanley Tucci.

A closeup photo of the pink gallery wall, which highlights “The Columbia Years” from 1965-1973 with various album covers and historical photos

The Boss Signs the Boss

“America’s given birth to two poets laureate in my lifetime. One is Bob Dylan, the other is Bruce Springsteen,” Davis recounts in a clip. “I viewed him as somebody who was approaching music in an incredibly intelligent and insightful way.” The video likewise captures Springsteen conveying his admiration for Davis: “It was a certain sweetness and warmness that made me really feel pretty comfortable.” Davis also recalls that Springsteen was too sedentary a performer in his early years when he signed him to Columbia Records, so he urged him to move around more until he became, says Davis, “the incredibly charismatic, brilliant, almost unique live performer that he is up until this day.”

A photo of a corner of the gallery where one wall is covered in albums next to a large display case with many different awards and trophies

The Talented Mr. Davis

“His awards are there in an entire case unto themselves,” says King. “I mean, it’s a pretty astounding look at Clive Davis’s life. And it really materializes the contributions that he’s made to the industry over the years, over the decades.” Among the many Grammys, gold and platinum records, and magazine covers are markers honoring his philanthropic efforts, including trophies from the Jackie Robinson Foundation and NAACP Image Awards.

—Dulcy Israel

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Photos © Sean Zanni/PMC; courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau/Creighton (letters)