AUSTIN, Texas -- Clive Davis is always selling something, it seems. At the South by Southwest Music Conference on Thursday, it was his autobiography that was being flogged, and as he sat to talk about it with Billboard journalist Bill Werde, he immediately began talking about chart position. The book was apparently No. 2 on the latest best-seller list.
So it has always been for Davis on what has generally been a sun-kissed career, beginning at Columbia Records in the '60s, where he instantly became the hippest guy in the company by default. Davis was a Harvard-educated lawyer who acknowledged he was clueless about rock and its cultural implications: "I knew nothing," he said. "I never knew there was a revolution."
But in a company with talent scouts who saw pop music as revolving around performers such as the Ray Coniff singers and Steve and Edie, he found a niche. He showed up at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 wearing a white tennis sweater and khaki, while some of the fans were wearing little more than beads and sandals. He was distinctly out of his league, but he had the sense to realize that Big Brother and the Holding Company, with their lead singer Janis Joplin, and the Electric Flag, which included Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles, had something Columbia lacked: credibility with people under the age of 25. His career took off after signing both artists. He later added Carlos Santana and Blood Sweat & Tears to his resume, and weathered scandals and record-company politics to sign and nurture Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and Kelly Clarkson, and orchestrate the comebacks of Santana and Barry Manilow.
In his interview, Davis briefly addressed his war-of-words with Clarkson, which centered on her desire to write her own songs. He had the same argument once with Whitney Houston, he said. "I told her that if you can write a song as good as 'The Greatest Love of All' or 'Saving All my Love for You,' then by all means do it," he said. "She never brought the subject up again."
Unfortunately, Davis didn't do much to expand on an opening video that framed his career as one long virtuous, humanitarian series of triumphs. His audience, which included working artists several rungs below the Whitney and Kelly level of fame, wasn't even allowed to ask a question. He offered no clues as to what aspiring songwriters or singers should do to please his all-knowing ear. Guess they'll just have to buy the book.
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