The Man With the Golden Ears

58 FEA Aretha Franklin
Courtesy of Clive Davis

“This was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and I had just signed Aretha. We had gone down to the ballroom at the hotel. She sat down at the piano and started playing “It’s My Turn,” by Diana Ross — and that was the beginning of our relationship."

The most successful music executive in history shares personal photos from a career told through songs and pictures.

When Clive Davis — the living-legend mogul whose career is a one-man timeline of popular music going back to the 1960s — looks out the windows of his 35th-floor office at Sony’s New York headquarters, he sees the Empire State Building, the traffic coming up Madison Avenue and the cars inching their way across the 59th Street Bridge. You could get lost in the view. But the windows that really draw a visitor’s gaze aren’t the ones that open upon all of Manhattan — rather, they are the smaller ones, arrayed in a 4-by-7-foot grid along a solid wall. Here, the storied past of the Man With the Golden Ears is patterned out in rows of framed photographs: a checkerboard of signings, nights out, awards ceremonies, lifetime achievement honors. The view, even in black and white, is stunning.

“These things go back,” Davis, 78, the chief creative officer of Sony Music, says matter-of-factly as he revs up a tour of his photographic history. This is his inspiration wall, his own outsize greatest-hits collection of the artists whose music he’s had the pleasure of steering into the cerebral cortex of anyone within earshot of a radio since about 1967: Janis Joplin, Santana, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys.

But it’s not as if Davis is living in the past. His expansive desk looks much like a 29-year-old A&R guy’s might — piled high with memos and CD jewel boxes. It just differs in scope. “There are people I know from decades earlier that have not kept their ears current,” he says. “I know how easy it is to go over the hill.”

As Davis bundles up his weekly cache of demos and new releases to tote up to his weekend house in Westchester — every weekend is a serious listening session — he weighs the question of how his gilded hit-detecting apparatus has remained in good polish. “A big part of it is instinctual,” he says. “When you hear it, you get that proverbial tingle up your spine. You just know it.”

Janis Joplin, 1967
“She was the first artist I ever signed, and this was taken the day I signed her to Columbia. She asked to see me privately in my office. She said something like, ‘This is all so formal, so corporate.’ Then she said, ‘We should get it on!’ I, of course, only warmly embraced her.”

Patti Smith, 1975
“She was my young Renaissance poet woman. To me, that’s what she still is: an incredible Renaissance person, not just a rock ’n’ roll singer. Her poetry, her art. We still keep in touch.”

Ray Davies, 1976
“That was taken at the Dorchester Hotel in London when I signed the Kinks. He was not selling commensurate with his history. We worked together, and with his hits and magical performing ability, Ray returned to playing at Madison Square Garden. He’s an example of an artist — like Aretha, Luther Vandross, Rod Stewart — you look at them and say, ‘This is timeless.’ ”

Grateful Dead, 1980
“When they tried to sell their albums off of Good Humor trucks, I told them their plan was going to fail. When it didn’t work out, they came to me around 1976 and said, ‘We want you to handle our records.’ That was a major thing for me. I had all their albums until Jerry died.”

Aretha Franklin, 1980
“This was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and I had just signed Aretha. We had gone down to the ballroom at the hotel. She sat down at the piano and started playing “It’s My Turn,” by Diana Ross — and that was the beginning of our relationship. I respect the singer-songwriters, the self-contained artists who can produce original material; those are the ones that got me into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Patti Smith, Lou Reed, the Kinks. But when I founded Arista, to add another string to my bow, I decided to respect the professional songwriters. Think of an artist like Aretha, who has a God-given voice but doesn’t write songs. For me, it’s about coming up with great material for them and not apologizing for it. You get mauled by rock critics, but they’re not acknowledging the vaudeville side of the business, and you don’t want to disenfranchise Sinatra and Streisand and Aretha — artists who put their own stamp on the music.”

Eurythmics, 1981
“When I signed the Eurythmics to RCA, they didn’t want a normal signing photo. So they came up to my suite at the Ritz in Paris with those sunglasses for us all to wear. At least we’re sitting up in this shot. We did take some pictures where we were supine.”

Whitney Houston, 1984
“This was taken around the time I signed Whitney. We’ve always had a great partnership — I’ve found every song she’s ever recorded. I’d commissioned the song “The Greatest Love of All” to be recorded for the Muhammad Ali movie, The Greatest. George Benson, of course, originally did it for the movie, but when I auditioned Whitney by total coincidence it was one of the songs she was singing in her act. I made the songwriters, Michael Masser and Linda Creed, fly in to see her because her voice is so stunning.”

Barry Manilow, 1989
“At first, he pictured himself totally as a composer. But as I prepared to sign him, I didn’t hear any hits, so I gave him the song ‘Mandy.’ When I played another particular song for him, Barry said: ‘Are you crazy? I would never ever sing a song that says I write the songs that make the whole world sing — that’s so egomaniacal.’ And he went out of my office and didn’t talk to me for months.”