The idol maker: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives *** By Dennis Hartley
A long distance, directory assistance, area code 212
Say hey, A & R-this is mister rhythm and blues
He said hello, and put me on hold
To say the least the cat was cold
He said don’t call us, child...we’ll call you.
-from “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”, by Sugarloaf
In Hit Men, Fredric Dannen’s excellent 1990 book recounting the golden era of the major record label power brokers, the author writes:
Rock historians tend to romanticize the pioneers of the rock and roll industry. It is true that the three large labels of the fifties—RCA Victor, Decca, and Columbia, which CBS had bought in 1938—were slow to recognize the new music. [...]
The pioneers deserve praise for their foresight but little for their integrity. Many of them were crooks. Their victims were usually poor blacks, the inventors of rock and roll, though whites did not fare much better. [...]
The modern record industry, which derives half its revenues from rock, worships its early founders. It has already begun to induct men such as disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When veteran record men wax nostalgic about the fifties, they often speak of the great “characters” who populated the business.
One of the direct descendants of those “characters” (and also profiled in Dannen’s book) is legendary A & R man Clive Davis. Davis was president of Columbia Records from 1966-1973, and founder and president of Arista Records 1974-2000 (when he founded J Records). In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the non-performer’s category. He was chairman and CEO of the RCA Music Group from 2002-2008; currently he is the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment (at age 85).
Davis is also the subject of a new documentary,Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. You should know up front that Chris Perkel’s film was made with Davis’ full blessing and cooperation; so if you are looking for an expose of the cutthroat music business, you will be disappointed (for a more unvarnished portrait of Mr. Davis and his peers, I recommend Dannen’s book). Still, music fans should find it a worthwhile watch.
Putting the generally hagiographic tone of the film aside, the title’s “soundtrack of our lives” conceit is actually not too far off the mark. As is recounted in the film, the lawyer-turned-record company talent scout came roaring out of the gate by cannily raiding the embarrassment of new and exciting talent on display at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
After watching Janis Joplin’s jaw-dropping performance at the festival, he immediately signed Big Brother and the Holding Company (good call!). Other notable artists who joined the Columbia roster under Davis’ tenure and mentorship: Santana, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, The Chambers Brothers, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Loggins & Messina, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, and Earth Wind and Fire.
Unfortunately, Davis ended up getting fired from CBS in the mid-70s for alleged misappropriation of company funds for personal use. Details of this period are glaringly glossed over in the film; we are only offered Davis’ contention that he was the sacrificial lamb in a company-wide payola scandal that he denies having any direct involvement in.
Arguably, this could have been the best thing that ever happened to him, as Davis dusted himself off and founded Arista Records shortly thereafter. While he didn’t necessarily “discover” every artist on the label, he did assemble an impressive lineup that would seem to affirm his “golden ear” for talent: Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Eric Carmen, Air Supply, Ray Parker Jr., Carly Simon, The Grateful Dead, etc. Davis has also displayed a talent for helping give long-established artists with waning sales a second wind in their careers; the film explores how he “reintroduced” Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Grateful Dead and Santana to a new generation of fans.
Not surprisingly, a sizeable portion of the film is devoted to Davis’ most storied client relationship, which was with Whitney Houston. Under Davis’ mentorship, Houston became one of the biggest selling artists of all time. Their partnership was at once professional and paternal; Davis’ recollections of his attempts to help her overcome the struggles with addiction that led to her sadly untimely end are very personal and moving.
As I inferred, music fans will find the film absorbing (if not necessarily revelatory). I would have liked to have learned a little more about Davis’ “process” as a talent scout and an idol maker; maybe a few more anecdotes about working directly with specific artists (at times as a de facto producer in the studio) might have spiced things up. Still, as a study of what is literally a dying breed of “hit men”, this single should make the charts.
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Side 2: Speaking of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame...
While I abhor the concept of tossing creative artists into the gladiatorial pit (art, prose, poetry, music and film are not competitive sports), my sworn duties as a pop culture critic occasionally require me to add my two cents worth of bread, in regard to such circuses.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 19 nominees for induction in 2018: Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, The Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, The MC5, The Meters, Moody Blues, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Nina Simone, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray, and The Zombies. Worthy artists all, but (this is what I hate about “contests”) how do I justify my 5 picks (the Hall’s yearly limit for new inductees) without seeming to denigrate the rest? By doing my job and plowing forward (alphabetically):
Kate Bush - While I fear she has a snowball's chance in hell to actually get selected (I've noticed the Hall tends to snub artists who defy genre), I'm one longtime fan who is happy to see she has at least been nominated. Depending on what day of the week it is, you could file Kate Bush under singer-songwriter, performance artist, progressive rock, experimental, folk, chamber-pop, electronica, et al. By the time she was 16, she already had demos of around 50 compositions, several of which caught the ear of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, who shopped them to music execs, helping launch her recording career. Her music comes from a place of sharp intelligence and sublime aesthetic rarely matched (her 4-octave range doesn't hurt). And she's been doing this for 40 years...so I say, yes...let her in!
Best 3 albums: Never For Ever, The Dreaming, Hounds of Love
The Cars - It's not the first Hall of Fame nomination for this iconic Boston band; odds are good that it will finally take. Their classic 1978 debut album was a breath of fresh air at the time; the perfect bridge between the stadium rock excess of the mid to late 70s and the burgeoning skinny-tie new-wave scene of the early 80s. They ingeniously mixed warm, Beatle-y power pop sensibilities with the cool detachment of Kraftwerk-influenced electronica-and it worked (as you can hear in the aptly-entitled "All Mixed Up" above). They have since built an impressive catalog, so I'd say they are due.
Best 3 albums: The Cars, Candy-O, Heartbeat City
Judas Priest - "Priest! Priest! Priest!" C'mon...let's put the ROCK back into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Considering this U.K. outfit has been slashing power chords since 1969, and that their popularity has never waned, you can't say they haven't proven their mettle (metal?) by now. Not to mention that they are responsible for one of the best hard rock albums ever made...Sad Wings of Destiny. Great catalog of songs (many of them bonafide rock anthems), ace dual guitarists, and Rob Halford's otherworldly pipes...I rest my case.
Best 3 albums: Sad Wings of Destiny, Sin After Sin, Screaming for Vengeance
The Moody Blues - Every year, there is at least one nominee that makes me do a spit take (did I get any on you?). "Are you kidding me? You mean they are not already in the Hall of Fame? Seriously?!" if 50 years of consistently top-shelf symphonic rock and chart-topping singles doesn't make them a shoo-in, I don't know what does. Jeez.
Best 3 albums: Days of Future Passed, In Search of the Lost Chord, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour
The Zombies - Another classic band whose time for induction is overdue. Founded by keyboardist Rod Argent in 1958 (!), they scored a string of hit singles in the U.K. and the U.S. in the early to mid-60s. Songs like "She's Not There", "Tell Her No" and "Time of the Season" are imprinted in the neurons of those "of a certain age" (ahem). Those hits are timeless, but the deep cuts have a lot of substance as well; informed by Argent's unique jazz-rock chord shapes and Colin Blunstone's breathy vocals. Argent and Blunstone still do the odd gig; so let's give them credit for hanging in there!
Best 3 albums: Begin Here, Odyssey and Oracle, Decca Stereo Anthology