After nearly 6 decades in the music business, there’s little that surprises Clive Davis.
Yet when the 6-time Grammy winner, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and discoverer/promoter of megastars ranging from Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston and Jennifer Hudson sits down for a public conversation with Rolling Stone‘s Anthony DeCurtis, Davis never knows what he’ll be asked.
Westporters get their chance to see it this Friday, May 2 (7:30 p.m., Bedford Middle School auditorium) — for free. It’s part of the Westport Library’s Malloy Lecture in the Arts series.
Davis has plenty to talk about. An orphan who earned a full scholarship at New York University and went on to Harvard Law School, he rocketed from general counsel at Columbia Records to presidency of the company.
He discovered Joplin at Monterey Pop. He’s worked with Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Arrowsmith, Alicia Keyes, Simon & Garfunkel, Miles Davis, Rod Stewart and Kelly Clarkson. His influence has extended from Columbia Records to Arista, J and now Sony Music.
Recently, I pretended I was DeCurtis. I asked Davis a few questions, like how he’s managed to stay fresh in a career that’s spanned Janis Joplin in the 1960s, and American Idol stars like Hudson today.
“I love the industry, or else I wouldn’t still do this,” he said. “Music is a natural passion for me.” At the same time he’s combing through tapes and videos of old Whitney Houston, he’s excited about signing The Voice’s 18-year-old Avery Wilson.
Davis still mourns the premature death of Houston. He is proud of discovering the crossover artist — who sold over 200 million records worldwide — and helping her develop her natural creativity.
Joplin’s career also ended far too soon, Davis said. In just a couple of years, he took her from “Piece of My Heart” to “Me and Bobby McGee.” He regrets never knowing what “that voice and unique talent” could have accomplished had she not died at 27.
Davis was on hand at the beginning of Springsteen’s career, too. The executive “stood back in awe” as the Boss honed his performance skills. Ever the businessman, Davis is now in awe of Springsteen’s “great concert grosses.”
Of course, no music industry mogul — not even a Hall of Fame honoree — is infallible. Davis passed on signing John Cougar Mellencamp, believing him to sound too much like Springsteen.
Davis always called that a big mistake — until Mellencamp told him he was right. “I auditioned for you way too early,” Mellencamp said. “At that time I was very heavily influenced by Bruce. Rest easy.”
Davis is 82 now, but his finger on the pulse of popular music remains strong. He called electronic dance music “not the healthiest trend,” because it has slowed the development of strong voices and held down albums sales.
But — pointing to artists like 17-year-old Lorde — he looks forward to the pendulum swinging back.
“I think there are individual artists out there with something to say. We have to make sure the next Dylan or Springsteen will be heard — and with albums, not singles. I think there’s great promise for that.”
Clive Davis will discuss all that — and more — in Westport on Friday. He’ll have interesting answers to Anthony DeCurtis’ provocative questions — whatever they may be.
(Clive Davis’ Malloy Lecture on May 2 is free — but registration is required. Click here for your seat.)