During an eventful and turbulent career spanning five decades, Clive Davis has nurtured an astonishing variety of iconic talent, including Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys. His longevity as a high-profile record company chief executive owes much to his acclaimed “ears” and a knack for choosing popular hits, which have enjoyed platinum sales and multiple Grammy Awards.
Davis began his professional career as a corporate lawyer whose firm did business with CBS Records, and he was soon recruited into the label's executive offices. He now credits his attending the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 for opening his eyes to a new generation of musical talent, beginning with his first signing, Joplin. Davis was president of Columbia/CBS Records from 1967 to 1972, a reign that saw the company further open its doors to rock and folk, including early albums from Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Aerosmith, Laura Nyro and Billy Joel.
He began earning a reputation for spending lavishly, and was pushed out of CBS after accusations that Davis used company money for his son's bar mitzvah and other personal expenses — charges that were never proven. He soon founded a new label, Arista Records, where his winning streak of mainstream hits continued. After signing Houston at age 19, she became one of the most successful female vocalists in recording history. In 1999, he spearheaded Santana's 1999 comeback album, “Supernatural,” returning the guitarist to contemporary pop radio and winning eight Grammys.
Despite his successes, Davis was forced out of Arista in 2000, officially because at age 71, he was past retirement age. Davis didn't slow down, but created J Records, a subsidiary of BMG, and scored hits with new discoveries Keys and Busta Rhymes. Four years later, he was named chief executive of BMG North America, which included control of Arista.
Some of his most recent successes have included albums by winners and runners-up from “American Idol,” including Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard. One “Idol” star, Kelly Clarkson, openly feuded with Davis over creative control of her second album, but publicly apologized. In 2009, Davis performed another feat by returning Houston to the top of the charts with the comeback album, “I Look to You,” debuting at No. 1 after years as tabloid fodder. In 2008, Davis stepped down from his role in the BMG corporate office for a creative position, still in search of another generation of pop talent.