How to live to 90 and keep dancing…
Listen… and be yourself…
Hi, Ari here with a post about music, longevity and the mogul Clive Davis. You can subscribe for all my writing here:
Thank You, for Letting Me… Be Myself
Check out this list:
Sly and the Family Stone
Simon & Garfunkel
Gil Scott Heron
These are just some of the artists launched and led by one of the most iconic moguls in modern music, across all genres, Clive Davis.
The Brooklyn-born lawyer was orphaned at a young age, entered the music business, and established himself as a hit-maker—running record companies, launching his own, and always staying at it. Today, at 90, he continues to work as the chief creative officer at Sony Music, and maintains relationships with artists that literally span over half a century.
Artists often tout Davis’s “ear” as better than their own (and most “suits”). He can hear a piece of music, or a new artist, and recognize both talent and what will “land,” or how to shape things into hits. Some top musicians say they take Clive’s recommendations over their own about how to release the “singles” that traditionally can break an album. Simon and Garfunkel, for example, recount how they were shocked he picked “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as their key single, since it was such a slow ballad, but they trusted his judgment (and he was right, as you probably know!).
There’s nothing “automatic” about that kind of trust, when art and creativity meet business.
Labels—like Columbia Records that Davis brought to number one in the country in the 1970s—often have clashes or adversarial relationships with artists. Even big, established ones. And many artists take it as a given that pursuing popularity and sales will demand compromising their art. If they do achieve independence, their first priority may be doing less obviously commercial work.
So it’s notable that in addition to the “big” pop stars, Davis earned the trust to work with iconoclasts and radicals like Gil Scott Heron and The Grateful Dead.
So while Davis is a hit-maker and a businessperson, his knack for art and individuality distinguished him. He takes all comers—he is as happy with a hyper-produced pop act as a tortured solo folk artists—but he seems to really respect the less commercially minded artists.
He talks casually about the difference between artists who benefit from more production, or have their songs written for them, and the (sometimes more visionary or stubborn) “self-contained” artists, who write their own material.
How do you bond with all of them? Davis quotes Sly and the Family Stone (of course!) to make the point:
“In the case of a Patti Smith, in the case of a Bruce Springsteen, those incredibly unique poet laureates… you let them be themselves.”
That’s where his knack for discovering talent—rather than chasing other trends—fuels a confidence in encouraging the artist’s to be themselves, and their best selves.
When Joplin or Smith first came on the scene, they were very different from the rock star archetype, and the rules for women performers. He didn’t care. He didn’t try to mess with them, or make them anything that they weren’t. That probably wouldn’t excel for very long… and apparently, it also endeared them to work with him more.
I have interviewed Davis twice, and full (party) disclosure, I recently attended his 90th birthday party.
That event had many mulling his legacy and longevity.
When I asked him about life highlights, he cited one from within the last month!... which speaks to a mentality of growth and living for right now. (The recency jumped out to me more than the detail, because with his life, there must be many great moments from the other 89 years, but he was psyched about something from basically now.)
Santana, another Davis artist, has said Clive stays current because his mind is always open. He also seems old school about art and classic values—listening, loyalty, hard work. And Clive gets the last word, with a thought about what music does:
“Great music [leaves] a permanent effect on you and your soul and your being… great music has been so important to our culture, to our life, it permeated the iron curtain. It’s music that can pierce that and be so important to life, to culture, and to the world itself.”
Who is your favorite artist from this (partial) list of Clive’s artists?
P.S. Here’s a link to one of my recent interviews with Davis.