Book Review - Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of My Life (2013)

Book Review
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After much anticipation, I couldn't wait to dig into the journey of Clive Davis, a music industry legend. Any industry follower, musician or music lover/collector has some degree of awareness of Mr. Davis. For me, it was as a teenager, discovering the music of Patti Smith and reading Rolling Stone. Looking back, it was odd to see an industry executive get as much press as Davis, but his was a name I've been familiar with for over 30 years. The now 80-year-old Davis has had a career in the music business spanning 45 years, beginning in 1967 with Columbia Records, and through the ensuing years with Arista Records, J Records, BMG North America, and currently as the Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music Entertainment.

After much anticipation, I couldn't wait to dig into the journey of Clive Davis, a music industry legend. Any industry follower, musician or music lover/collector has some degree of awareness of Mr. Davis. For me, it was as a teenager, discovering the music of Patti Smith and reading Rolling Stone. Looking back, it was odd to see an industry executive get as much press as Davis, but his was a name I've been familiar with for over 30 years. The now 80-year-old Davis has had a career in the music business spanning 45 years, beginning in 1967 with Columbia Records, and through the ensuing years with Arista Records, J Records, BMG North America, and currently as the Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music Entertainment.

The Soundtrack of My Life begins with Davis's early years, of growing up in Brooklyn, achieving great success academically and receiving a scholarship to Harvard Law, after attending NYU. The tragedy of his early years was the loss of both his parents within one year while he was a teenager, but he was able to live with his sister until he could be independent. The first surprise is discovering that Davis was not a music lover, wasn't born with those "ears" he developed much later on through networking and learning from the right people who schooled him. He was a lawyer, a "suit," who managed to parlay his position in the firm where he worked into a job with Columbia Records. These years were pivotal for Davis. He eventually became President of Columbia and was involved in signing some of the era’s greatest acts.

Davis was responsible for the signings of Janis Joplin, Santana, Billy Joel, Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Pink Floyd and Loggins & Messina, while stewarding Simon & Garfunkel and Earth, Wind and Fire into mega-sales. His years at Columbia came to an end amidst a financial scandal that gets aired in the book. The following years were at Arista, where again Davis was relentless in signing greats: Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Patti Smith, Eric Carmen, Ray Parker, Jr. Alicia Keys, Carly Simon and a myriad of acts from across the spectrum of Pop, R & B, and Rock. He also created a very successful Arista Nashville music division and became partners with L.A. Reid and Babyface in the creation of LaFace Records, once home to TLC, Usher, Outkast, Pink and Toni Braxton. Davis then founded Bad Boy Records with Sean Combs, which became the launch pad for 112, Mase, Total, Faith Evans and the Notorious B.I.G.

At over 600 pages, the book is extremely detailed in its reminiscing, but disappointing when taking on the feel of the longest resume you’ve ever read. Whole chapters are devoted to various artists, but it soon becomes apparent that it was Davis's way or the highway. Davis had a knack for picking hits and a stable of songwriters that he made sure almost every artist he signed was urged to use. He actually had a deal with Barry Manilow, a celebrated songwriter, where Davis would be allowed to choose two songs on each of Manilow's albums, and Manilow went along with it after his first album stiffed. Davis describes numerous instances of dealing with the singer/songwriters who he felt could not write a hit, so Davis was more than willing to provide them with one or several. Melissa Manchester was another artist who was granted the Davis treatment of practically being force-fed songs she hated at the time, but they became hits, hits that she didn't write. Whether Davis was right in his pressuring or not, given his acts’ successes, is up to the reader. Throughout these pages, Davis adopts a justifying attitude regarding his well known "Golden Ears,” repeatedly rationalizing his decision to insinuate himself into the artistry of so many performers on his rosters. Over time, all the self-aggrandizement drags the book down, and soon it is more about Davis and how his skill at picking hits saved the career of so many artists, and less about the artists themselves.

As expected, what is arguably Davis's most important find, Whitney Houston, gets her own chapter in the book. Sadly, the chapter isn't very informative, adding nothing new to the story of Houston. Further, it lacks the heart one would expect from the man known as her guiding light in the record business for three decades. Instead, it reads as if the always calculated Davis chose his words very carefully, making sure he could not be implicated in anything that went wrong in Houston's personal or professional life. On the other side of the Houston coin is Alicia Keys, an artist who Davis can't say enough great things about, almost making her out to be the good girl to Houston's "bad” and the difference in how things go when you listen to Davis and behave yourself. Davis presents two chapters, two Davis superstars, and two very different outcomes, depending on whether they were obedient.

By the time this chapter comes along, the biography becomes a chore. Eventually, the biography devolves into a relentless recitation of every single band, artist, hit song, one-hit wonder (or not), that Davis had a hand in, and why that song or artist had a hit because of Davis's guidance or song choices. Davis also chose his biography to give thanks to those executives and some of the songwriters who helped him achieve all his success with these artists, but the fan wants to know about those artists’ processes and experiences, the inside track in creating those vaunted hits. Davis was witness to some of the most amazing music created over the past 45 years, but so much of this book is spent on the influence of Davis on the artists and how he is responsible for their success. What ultimately results is a story where the artists become background singers to the star that is Clive Davis. Having read so many music industry bios and memoirs, Davis’s was the first that took this approach. Hopefully, it’s the last.

Throughout, Davis doesn't hesitate to use his book to mention every artist that would not follow his advice and failed, every executive that slighted him, everyone who he feels wronged him in his career and it reeks of getting even in every passage that he talks about these various people, Kelly Clarkson just being one among legions. Accordingly, Davis received some negative press when the book debuted for his chapter on the artist, Kelly Clarkson. Public opinion swayed in Clarkson’s favor, following her response to what he wrote about her, dismissing her writing talent, and making Mr. Davis sound like a tyrannical bully. Unremarked amidst the controversy, was how the Clarkson chapter also shows a very negative slant on Davis’s involvement with all the artists he dealt with as a mentor during his involvement with the show American Idol, including Fantasia, Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard.

Mr. Davis had an excellent writer, Anthony DeCurtis, as his collaborator, but even he cannot save Davis from himself. With better editing, The Soundtrack of My Life had great potential. The book covered so much of the music in my collection. Given its level of historical detail, I recommend it as a decent reference book. Nonetheless, as a memoir, it is unbalanced, lacking in Davis's personal story, if bloated in the conceits of his professional one.

The big reveal of The Soundtrack of My Life, the subject of Davis’s bi-sexuality might have made headlines when the book was released, but it’s more a tease than a reveal, taking up a mere four pages at the end of this massive tome. It's hard not to believe that Mr. Davis didn't consider the admission would help sell his book when details are so brief, as are the stories of his two marriages and mentions of his four children. However, there are so many mentions of his celebrated pre-Grammy soirees, vacations, fabulous homes, pictures of his artists (and those of executive pals’), and mentions of salaries so incredible, detailed with such an air of entitlement, that The Soundtrack of My Life becomes a 1%er’s "Scrapbook of My Life.” At 608 pages of such smug pats on his own back a certain tediousness creeps into reading the work, making completing this book a Herculean feat.

The Soundtrack of My Life has earned its place in the canon of books about the record business, but this book is only recommended for the hardcore collector, music fan, or industry people who are interested in the minutiae of yesterday’s music business, particularly reading about the industry from the sixties onward. Considering how completely different the music industry landscape is today, not just for record companies, but for the artists, there are no relevant primers here. From a historical perspective, there is enough to keep you reading, but prepare to wade through the morass of what Clive Davis considered important versus what the reader may really want to know and learn about the man and the industry.

By Colleen Rubino

Simon & Schuster ISBN-13: 978-14767147783, 609 pages

 

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