February is traditionally a hectic month for music-company executive Clive Davis, who throws a famous annual Grammy party. But this year the 80-year-old has been busier than usual. On Feb. 19, Simon & Schuster published his memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life, which tracks his career from head of Columbia Records in the ’60s and early ’70s to his overlordship of Arista and J Records to his stint as chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment today. Near the end of the 586-page book, the twice-married Davis opens up about his sexuality, describing how experimentation in ”the era of Studio 54” led to his current monogamous relationship with a man. ”I just know that for many years I was attracted to women, and then I discovered that I was attracted to men as well,” says Davis. ”It was something that everyone close to me knew about.” Davis’ near appendixing of this revelation is in line with the downplayed nature of other celebrity self-outings, such as Anderson Cooper’s. He does not want the news to distract from the heart of the book: his tales of working with a lineup of talent that includes Whitney Houston, Bob Dylan, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson, and Janis Joplin. To mark the publication of The Soundtrack of My Life, Davis sat down with EW in his Manhattan office to reminisce about making music with megastars.
Davis, originally employed as legal counsel at Columbia, had the unpleasant task of explaining to an indignant Bob Dylan why the company would not release the song ”Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” (the lyrics suggest members of the titular conservative organization are Nazis) in 1963. Six years later he redeemed himself by recommending the singer-songwriter put out the track ”Lay Lady Lay” as a single despite its erotic content. ”I said, ‘I just love the cut,”’ recalls Davis. ”He said, ‘Well, I’m surprised that the lyric would allow me to be in the ball game.”’ Released in July 1969, ”Lay Lady Lay” turned into one of Dylan’s biggest hits. The following year, Davis did Simon & Garfunkel a similar service by persuading them to release the title track of Bridge Over Troubled Water as a single.
Davis first saw the blues-rock singer fronting the band Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. ”She was totally electrifying,” says Davis, who would soon become president of Columbia Records. He persuaded the band to join Columbia — but Big Brother’s manager, Albert Grossman, shocked him with a very special request from Joplin before they signed on the dotted line: ”Albert took me aside and said, ‘This is so meaningful to Janis that she would like it to be more personal and intimate. She would like to f— you.’ I took that as a big compliment.” And? ”I smiled and declined.” Davis later helped oversee Joplin’s solo album, Pearl, which was released after her death from a heroin overdose in October 1970. ”I was totally unprepared for the news,” he says. ”She had played ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ on the phone for me two, three days before.”
In 1973, Davis became embroiled in a fraud scandal at Columbia. Although prosecutors would drop all but one minor charge against him, he was fired (which was a shame, as he had recently signed a bright prospect from New Jersey named Bruce Springsteen). In 1974, Davis founded a new company, Arista, whose early roster included Barry Manilow, then a little-known singer-songwriter. Davis saw promise in his new charge, although more as a performer than a writer. Manilow disagreed with that view, but Davis told him, ”Well, if you were Irving Berlin, we would know it by now!” Today he concedes, ”That was rather harsh. I think it’s endeared us to each other that we survived that period. And look at him! He’s selling out on Broadway!”