From the pages of the latest edition of Rainmakers, Bud Scoppa recalls his years working with Clive Davis at Arista Records, and the iconic 90-year-old record man offers his thoughts about the business then and now.
When Clive Davis hired me as Arista’s West Coast A&R director in 1978, he was 46 and four years into the second chapter of his singular career. I soon found that he was neither an intimidating bully, like my first label bosses at Mercury, nor a laid-back, smooth operator, like A&M’s Jerry Moss and Gil Friesen. Instead, Clive was a perfectionist who was laser-focused on the singer and the song, doing A&R in the classic sense of the term, fully confident that his expertise was unmatched and consumed with winning.
By the time I showed up, Barry Manilow was Arista’s flagship artist and the king of MOR. But while Barry was cranking out the pop hits, Clive was also maintaining the cachet of hipness that had made his Columbia reign so historic, signing Patti Smith, Lou Reed, The Kinks, and The Grateful Dead (who scored their only Top 40 hit in 1987 with “Touch of Grey”), while forming fruitful creative relationships with Patti and Ray Davies. He also helped transform ex-Raspberries frontman Eric Carmen into a successful pop balladeer.
During my nearly five years working at Arista, Clive averaged one week a month in L.A., where he held court not in the West Coast office—he never set foot in the place, as I recall—but out of a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. There he met with artists and executives—I witnessed him chat with a feisty, fast-talking Jimmy Iovine one memorable afternoon—auditioned singer/songwriters at the piano in the ballroom and listened to music on a stereo brought over from the office for his visits.
As I told fellow Arista A&R alumnus Mitchell Cohen in an interview for his label history, Looking for the Magic, “Whenever he’d come to L.A., I would go over to the bungalow armed with a big stack of cassettes. He had this stereo, and it was always ridiculously loud, and I just stacked my cassettes on the coffee table and then he would spend the next hour or two playing me stuff, and I could never get my cassettes into the stereo.”
That was a bit of an exaggeration. Clive signed several of my recommendations, all bands emerging from the bustling L.A. club scene, most notably Black rock & rollers The BusBoys, but none of them clicked. My savior was Arista Songs head Billy Meshel, who in 1980 handed me Air Supply’s Australian single “Lost in Love” and urged me to put it in the overnight bag to New York. It was the furthest thing from my taste, but it was right up Clive’s alley, and he A&R’d the hell out of the hit album of the same name, which yielded three Top 5 singles.
That same year, believing he could make lightning strike twice, Clive orchestrated Aretha Franklin’s post-Atlantic comeback, duplicating the feat he’d pulled off the previous year with Dionne Warwick. On my visits to Arista HQ at 9 W. 57th, I discovered that, no matter how late he’d been up the night before, Clive was behind his desk at 9am, impeccably turned out in suit and tie, bright-eyed and ready for action.
Just a few months after I was canned, A&R exec Gerry Griffith introduced Clive to young singer Whitney Houston, who would become Arista’s biggest-selling artist and one of the biggest acts in music history, selling north of 200 million records worldwide.
During a wide-ranging conversation, Clive offered his thoughts about how the landscape of music and the business has changed since the start of his career in the 1960s.
“There are two kinds of artists that have been so important to contemporary music: the Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen kind of artists, who are poet laureates, I think, of our culture,” he replied. “Where is the next Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen coming from? I applaud hip-hop, I see it. There’s a lot of creativity still happening, but it can’t dominate in a way to totally stifle the big voice, the great voice, the Aretha voice, the Whitney voice. They were able to have historic careers, making music the whole world enjoyed; it’s a great source of pride to me.
“Aretha didn’t come to me until, as you know, she was already the Queen of Soul. Her concern was, ‘I’m approaching 40; can I still have a hit? My last two or three albums on Atlantic, I was not able to have a hit. I no longer work with Jerry Wexler, who worked as my collaborator to have the hits that have given me the title the Queen of Soul.’ But to me, she was timeless—always will be. Always a star and always unique.
“I remember that first time I rang her bell when she invited me for dinner. I had just brought Dionne Warwick back with ‘I’ll Never Love This Way Again’ and ‘Déjà Vu,’ after ‘Wanderers,’ and it was very much post-Burt Bacharach and Hal David. But when Aretha saw that Dionne was able to have a double-platinum album and a Grammy Award—she won both Pop Female and R&B Female with those two records—she said, ‘Would you work with me?’ I said, ‘It would be the biggest honor of my career.’ And it certainly turned out that way, so that she was relevant well beyond 40. I mean ‘I Knew You Were Waiting for Me’ I think was her first pop #1. And to have that and to have ‘Freeway of Love’ and ‘Jump to It’ and ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves’…
“Anyway, we were great friends until her passing. I was her date every time she went to the Kennedy Center. So I was there with her when she showed her genius again, doing ‘Natural Woman’ in a tribute to Carole King. So, yes, we need our Arethas and we need our Whitneys and we need our Dylans, and we need rock to be vital and expressive along with it. And, yes, music has changed, but I hope not in isolation of certain kinds of talent that have been part of what made contemporary music so special over the decades.”
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