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Clive Davis' Book: a Cheat Sheet

The music mogul's 600-page memoir boiled down to 60 key revelations about Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, Barry Manilow and more.

Clive Davis book P

Clive Davis' epic memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life, won't be an easy read for every music fan. Puffy aficionados may not care to read about Johnny Winter's contract negotiations, and the folks who pick it up to learn more about Janis Joplin probably won't care much about why Davis fell out with Kenny G or Dallas Austin. But lodged within its decades-spanning stats and minutiae are plenty of intriguing tidbits. From the book's nearly 600 pages, here are the 60 most fun factoids and anecdotes:

1. One of Davis’ earliest tasks at Columbia Records is censoring Bob Dylan. It was his responsibility, in a then-underling role, to tell Dylan that “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” would have to be excised from his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The lines about all John Birchers holding “Hitler’s views” were libelous, the company had decided. The young Dylan went apoplectic. Fortunately for Davis, Dylan might not be very good with names or faces: “In later years, when we had occasion to work together very cordially, I don’t think Dylan remembered that I was the lawyer who delivered this bad news to him.”

2. Yes, Janis Joplin did offer him a celebratory lay. It came through Big Brother’s lawyer, in advance of their meeting to sign the deal. “’You know what Janis would really like to do?’ Big Brother manager Albert Grossman asked. ‘She thinks it would be only fitting and proper that she ball you to cement the deal. That would be her way of showing this is a more meaningful relationship …’” Through the intermediary, Davis respectfully declined.

3. Somebody did show up naked to the Joplin signing, but it wasn’t her. When one of the members of Big Brother & the Holding Company stood up at the end of the meeting, “I could see that he had been sitting there nude the whole time.”

4. Davis asks Broadway legend Richard Rodgers to listen to Janis Joplin. Oops. As a theater aficionado, Clive imagines that Rodgers might be impressed with Joplin’s cover of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. “When the song ended, he didn’t say anything, which unnerved me … I decided to play ‘Piece of My Heart’ for him. Now that was a mistake … It was impossible for him to imagine why anyone would think she was talented. ‘If this means I have to change my writing, or that the only way to write a Broadway musical to is to write rock songs, then my career is over,’ he said, punctuating his remarks with emphatic gestures.”

5. Joplin snubs a worshipful Laura Nyro. “Laura was barely known and just wanted to tell her how much she loved the show. Janis ignored her, while taking belts straight from her bottle of Southern Comfort and chatting up a boy she was interested in. When Laura became something of a star herself a little bit later, things got worse. ‘I can see I’m not the number one female in your eyes anymore,’ Janis told me one day on the phone.”

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6. Simon & Garfunkel try to block a Graduate soundtrack album. Director Mike Nichols decided not to use any of the songs Paul Simon had written for the film except “Mrs. Robinson,” but did use some other oldies by the duo. Davis had the idea of having an album of half songs and half Dave Grusin score. They were miffed, but agreed after Davis promised not to put their photos on the album cover and to release Bookends three months later as scheduled. (Read an excerpt from this chapter at Billboard.com)

7. Davis angers Simon when he expressed displeasure at the S&G breakup. “Paul has said in interviews that when audiences erupted in applause after Artie completed the bravura close to ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ he would be onstage thinking, 'yes, thank you, I wrote that song.' That’s not the way successful partners should be thinking … I knew how competitive Paul was and how much he valued success,” so he told Simon that “it would be extremely difficult for him to achieve alone anything like the stratosphere he had reached with Simon and Garfunkel … Paul was not at all happy to hear this.”

8. He talks Bob Dylan into changing the title of Nashville Skyline … too late. “It was not in any literal sense a country album, and … I believed the title might be a turnoff to rock fans … Dylan’s invariable response in such conversations was ‘I’ll get back to you.’ Most often that simply meant ‘I don’t want to say no to you directly’ … On the day album covers were being shipped, a month after our last conversation on the subject, Dylan called to say that he’d been thinking about it and maybe I was right, maybe the album’s title should be changed. I had to tell him it was too late; we couldn’t change it. Now he grew concerned. Did I really think the title would impact his sales?”

9. Dylan almost became the flagship artist for … MGM Records. In 1966, CBS brass still weren't convinced Dylan had the long-term appeal of an Andy Williams and resisted his lawyer's demands for a better deal. MGM's record division put a much better offer on the table that Dylan actually signed. But Allen Klein, a member of MGM's board, asked Davis for a candid assessment of Dylan's commercial importance and found his actual record sales "were not likely what they believed them to be," leading Klein to tell the MGM board that signing him would be "a huge mistake." The studio dragged its feet till Dylan himself finally backed out. and the MGM label subsequently became a mere footnote in music history. 

10. Dylan’s 1970 Self Portrait wasn’t originally meant to be funny. Greil Marcus began Rolling Stone’s lengthy discussion of the album with the question ‘What is this shit?’ That pretty much summed up the tone of the reviews overall. Dylan was stung by many of the comments that were made. At first, he was defensive, but in succeeding years he has gone to some length to distance himself from the album. In a 1984 Rolling Stone interview he even referred to Self Portrait as ‘a joke,’ prompting an excellent follow-up question by Kurt Loder: ‘But why did you make it a double-album joke?’ … Dylan had discussed his concept for Self Portrait with me was he was working on the album, and at no point was he as ironic about it as he would later suggest.” Things might have gone differently if Dylan had recorded with the Byrds, as planned, but they “left town the day they were supposed to go into the studio, and Dylan was infuriated, as was I.”

11. Jim Messina didn’t want to make Loggins & Messina an official duo. Their first album was called Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In. On the second album, Messina “still wanted to keep his options open and describe himself as just ‘sittin’ in.’ This time I drew the line.”

12. Davis tries to coax Billy Joel out of recording retirement. A couple of years ago, he had Joel come into his office and, since Joel said in the ‘90s that he was done writing pop songs, shared an idea for Joel to record an album of rock classics. “He didn’t yell. He didn’t flee.” But after thinking about it for five months, Joel had his lawyer call Davis and say he’d decided he still had no desire to ever go in the studio again.

13. Shocker: Davis likes being in the limelight. “In the same way that I had faced potshots for being a big spender with the signings of Johnny Winter, Neil Diamond and Pink Floyd, I was called to task for courting personal publicity during my time at Columbia. Guilty as charged.”

14. He swears he didn’t personally charge his son’s bar mitzvah to his expense account. In a chapter devoted to his being fired from Columbia in 1973, he notes that the initial complaint filed against him by CBS cited $94,000 in expense-account violations over his six-year tenure as label president. He says it was really the fault of Columbia’s jailed former head of artist relations, who had “been in cahoots with a mobster” to falsify invoices or drum up kickbacks, “a few of them involving aspects of my personal business” -- including that bar mitzvah. After pleading guilty later to “failing to pay $2,700 in taxes on $8,800 of contested travel expenses,” Davis felt vindicated by the “virtually complete exoneration,” and by the judge speaking up about “the really grievous suffering of this individual and his family because of the intolerable publicity he has been exposed to.” Davis complains that “when I am written about or profiled in the media to this day, even well-meaning reporters mention, as if it were an established fact, that I wrote off my son Fred’s bar mitzvah as a business expense, even though that is not true.”

15. Davis passes the bar exam, again … in 1996, while he was heading Arista. Davis had been told his minor tax conviction was a misdemeanor, but a federal court ruling established “any tax violation on the part of an attorney” as a felony -- thus suspending Davis’ law license. So, decades later, he applied to be reinstated to the bar, even though he hardly needed to think about moonlighting. “In 1996, the year I applied for readmission to the bar, I earned more than $70 million, mostly from my phantom equity ownership interest in Arista Records.” For four to five months, he stayed up every night from 10 to 1, studying for the exam, and was told he landed in the top 3 to 4 percent. 

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16. Davis almost starts a new label with Saturday Night Fever/Hair impresario Robert Stigwood -- but Ahmet Ertegun sabotages it after experiencing a dose of competitive jealousy at a party. After being booted from Columbia, Davis got an offer from Chris Blackwell to run a new label group, but Blackwell backed out because of tax and payout issues. Then Davis aligned with Stigwood -- who was still bound to a contract with Atlantic. Ertegun told Davis that “he would be sympathetic to letting Stigwood out of his contract.” But two days before the deal is to be closed, Davis went to a party for James Taylor and Carly Simon, also attended by Ertegun … who scotches everything less than 48 hours later. “The only interpretation I could come up with was that at the party Ahmet had witnessed firsthand the special relationships I had established with artists … Ahmet played hard, as I do, and to that extent I can rationalize why he made the decision to stop the Stigwood deal.” This turnabout was proof that sometimes in life, you schmooze, you lose.

17. Barry Manilow has a fit over recording “I Write the Songs.” Manilow “still very much saw himself as a singer-songwriter” in the vein of Elton John and Billy Joel, whereas Davis sees him as an “entertainer.” After Manilow keeps balking at recording covers, an official compromise is reached: Davis gets to choose two songs for every album and Manilow can write the rest himself. But when Davis presents “I Write the Songs,” Manilow is aghast at the bitter irony: “Here’s a song that I didn’t even write, and yet I’m declaring that I write the songs that make the whole world sing?” “He stormed out of my office, and I didn’t hear from him for another two or three months … [It] has gone on to become his signature song. Nobody worries whether he wrote it.”

18. Davis gets a good zinger off at Manilow. The mogul describes a “boiling point” when Manilow’s sales began to slip in the early 1980s. “One day he said to me, ‘Look, I appreciate the songs you give me, but you’re turning me into Andy Williams or Perry Como. I’m a musician, I’m a composer!’ I looked him straight in the eye, and with all the frustration that had been building up, said, ‘Well, if you were Irving Berlin, we would know it by now!’ ”

19. Adult-contemporary queen Melissa Manchester fancies herself an auteur, too. She fought Davis “tooth and nail” and, when he brought her “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “You Should Hear How He Talks About You.” Writes Davis: “Melissa hated both songs with a passion … She was determined to live or die with her own songs.” Manchester ultimately wouldn’t agree to the type of deal Manilow had, where Davis would pick two covers per album and let her write the rest. Many years later, he quotes her as telling other people, “I didn’t realize the gift that was being given to me. I wish he had given me shock therapy or something to make me wake up and mature.”

20. He tries to get the Alan Parsons Project added as co-scorers on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “I didn’t think that [John] Williams would be able to produce something that we could use as a single.” He sits Williams and Steven Spielberg down, plays them the I Robot album, “and asked if there was any way we could incorporate their music into the film.” They politely declined. Later, Davis released a single from the Taxi Driver album, of Robert DeNiro’s voiceover over Bernard Herrmann’s score. “’Are you talkin’ to me?’ may be a classic film line, but it isn’t a lyrical hook,” he admits.

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21. Davis faces a difficult choice between Tom Petty and Dwight Twilley. In picking up Shelter Records, he got the “bombshell” news that a squabble with ABC ensured that Shelter’s owner would only be able to bring over one of the two artists. Torn, Davis ultimately went with the artist who’d already had a major hit … Twilley.

22. Lou Reed is one of the few artists Davis socializes with outside of work over the years. But it has its limits. Despite his then-glam image, Davis found Reed “just a Jewish guy who grew up in Freeport, except with dyed hair, incredibly long fingernails, and the palest skin … One weekend, I asked him to take a drive in (a) summer cabana in Long Beach … He said he could never do that. ‘Clive,’ he told me, ‘if I ever get a tan, my career would be over.’” Later, after Reed is signed to Arista and has a flop album (The Bells), he gives Davis the finger during a club show, saying, “Here, this is for you, Clive. Where’s the money, Clive? How come I don’t hear my album on the radio?” 

23. Rebellious image aside, Patti Smith doesn’t like being uncommercial. “Something one should know about Patti: She always wanted a hit … She wanted to sit on the sofa on The Tonight Show and trade quips with Johnny Carson. Those were goals she shared with me …” Although the Johnny dream was not to be, she had her radio hit when she covered a Bruce Springsteen outtake.

24. He was about to sign Fleetwood Mac to Arista right before they blew up. “I still have the contract, ready for signatures, in my files.” The meetings with Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and company took place just as Over My Head was coming out, and the group didn’t feel Warner Bros. was behind them. After it went five-times platinum, they ended up staying put.

25. Davis thinks the success of “Come Dancing” derails the Kinks’ career. He signed the band to Arista in the mid-‘70s on one condition: No deal if he still wants to make concept albums. “What if he wanted his next project to be Preservation: Act 3? ... Ray assured that my input was welcome, and refreshing -- no one at RCA had ever dealt him such straight-talk.” The Kinks go on to become late-in-life arena-rockers. But Davis grew chagrined when he heard “Come Dancing,” which “was far more pop than rock.” He wanted to come out with a rock single first to placate fans, but Davies went ahead and made a video for his preferred single, which became an MTV smash. “That was the good news,” but Davis blames it turning off their rock fan base for the album failing to go gold. 

26. He passes on Meat Loaf, missing out on one of the top-selling rock albums ever. “The songs were coming over as very theatrical, and Meat Loaf just didn’t look like a star.”

27. He gets Stiff but misses out on Elvis Costello. There was a split in the Stiff Records and management camp right before the Arista deal went down, so instead of Costello, Davis ended up with Ian Dury.

28. The Grateful Dead develop an unusual plan for usurping the usual sales model. “One of their innovative solutions to getting around the record-label distribution system was to sell their albums directly to the consumers through a fleet of ice-cream trucks.” Cooler, or warmer, heads prevailed.

29. Whitney Houston can’t override gay rumors early in her career because she’s having an affair with Jermaine Jackson, a then-married man. “The relationship never became public even though everyone around her knew about it.”

30. Houston wants to be a songwriter … for about 10 minutes. Coming up on her third album, Houston knew that critics “have much greater regard for artists who write their own material than for those who don’t … Of course, money was a factor as well.” Davis told her she was in the tradition of Holiday, Vaughan, Aretha, Sinatra, and Streisand. “All of them are Olympian artists, and, for the most part, none of them wrote.” After that conversation, “she never brought the issue up with me again.”

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