DON GONYEA, HOST:
If Columbia Records hadn't signed Bruce Springsteen in the early 1970s, there's a chance the Boss could have just been a small-stakes act, playing gigs around Asbury Park.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO RUN")
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) 'Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.
GONYEA: But music history would, of course, unfold differently. And Springsteen wasn't the first or the last huge success for the man at the helm of Columbia Records at the time, Clive Davis. Here are just a few more of the acts that he helped make household names - and in some cases icons - Billy Joel, Carlos Santana, Barry Manilow, Alicia Keys, Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. We could go on. Clive Davis shares personal stories about his life and career in his new memoir, "The Soundtrack of My Life." We talked with him earlier this week, and he told us before he became a music mogul, he was legal counsel at Columbia Records. He was toiling away, and then...
CLIVE DAVIS: Out of the blue, there was a reorganization of the company and they said, OK. I'm going to make you head of Columbia Records.
GONYEA: So, how did you feel? Did you feel prepared?
DAVIS: I was stunned. I was shocked. I honestly was shocked to my core.
GONYEA: What was your first step? How do you start to tackle that job?
DAVIS: You know, when you come into something unfamiliar, you watch. You don't come into - I didn't come with any panacea. They were a very successful label in middle-of-the-road music. They had Andy Williams. They had Barbra Streisand. But rock 'n' roll was not their forte. Music was changing, and I had to really watch and observe and see how it all went, which is what I did.
GONYEA: We see in the artists that you began to search for how quickly Columbia Records began to change. And there are different chapters in the book named after different artists. There's a chapter called Pearl. It is about Janis Joplin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF MY HEART")
JANIS JOPLIN: (Singing) Oh come on, come on, come on, come on. Didn't I make you feel...
GONYEA: When did you first hear her?
DAVIS: I went to the Monterey Pop Festival from New York to California wearing khaki pants and a tennis sweater. And I came into the midst of Haight-Ashbury, with flowing robes and beads. And even though I couldn't read music, I had never signed an artist, when I saw that electrifying, charismatic white soul sister Janis Joplin, I honestly was transfixed. I had gotten the first time in my life the almost cliche tingle up your spine. I knew that this was time for me to make my first creative move. And I dedicated myself to bind the contract. I did that for $200,000.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF MY HEART")
JOPLIN: (Singing) Come on, come on. Just take it. Take another little piece of my heart now, baby. Take another little piece of my heart...
GONYEA: You had a falling out with Columbia Records. It's time for a fresh start. Then comes Arista Records.
DAVIS: You got it.
GONYEA: What was your vision for Arista when you formed it?
DAVIS: The thing I did not do at Columbia that I did to in Arista was that I honed my ear into songs. And that for artists that didn't write, or if they did write, they didn't write enough pop hits for themselves. I looked for hit songs.
GONYEA: Your first big artist that you signed to Arista was an unknown entertainer, Barry Manilow.
GONYEA: How did you approach him?
DAVIS: With Barry, I went over the material. He had one album out before that. It had sold about 10,000 copies. He was still pretty unknown, except for his new work that he was doing at the arranger for Bette Midler in her emerging career. I saw him as really a terrific, ingratiating entertainer with a strong voice. And I went and listened to the material he had been doing for the second album, and I didn't feel there was a single there. And that's when I brought him "Mandy." Changed the name. It was originally called "Brandy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDY")
BARRY MANILOW: (Singing) I remember all my life, raining down as cold as ice, shadows of a man, a face through window crying in the night, the night goes in...
DAVIS: We went over the arrangement in the studio. I told him I needed it as a ballad, not as a peppy, upbeat song. He sat there in 10 minutes at the piano in the studio, came up with this brilliant ballad arrangement. We had a number one record.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDY")
MANILOW: (Singing) Oh Mandy, well, you came and you gave without taking, but I sent you away. Oh Mandy, well, you kissed me and stopped me from shaking. And I need you today, oh Mandy...
GONYEA: I'm wondering what do an artist like Bob Dylan and Barry Manilow and Sly Stone have in common? I mean, aside from the obvious, that they're talented and creative. Is there something you see that might surprise us?
DAVIS: Well, there are artists who take their craft seriously - all of whom love music. But I would urge you not to be amazed that the same label can have a Bob Dylan and a Barry Manilow or a Sly and the Family Stone and an Air Supply. It's like a network. You can have your "60 Minutes," but you can want your "American Idol," too. And the nice thing is - you know what they share in common? They're headliners. I don't dissect. And, you know, when you're talking about urban or hip-hop, as we will later, to develop - or country - it's not for me to determine what a country artist has in common with a hip-hop artist. You go for headliners. You go for those with long-lasting careers. And that's what I've had as my target all my life.
GONYEA: You describe the chapter about Whitney Houston as the most difficult to write. You were very close to her. You knew her when she was just a teenager. She came to be the biggest seller that your label had. Do you look back and wonder if you could have done more? You were involved in an intervention at one point.
DAVIS: I think in my book I go into detail with my efforts. I include a copy of my letter that I wrote to Whitney, you know, after I saw her at the Michael Jackson Madison Square Garden concert, where she was ghastly thin, skeletal, if you will. And I gasped and indeed cried because I was so fearful for her. And so, you know, in that letter I wrote to her where I said, you've always trusted me, always trusted every song, and I found every song, the hits that we had. And you must trust me here. You will not beat this. And, you know, logic doesn't win out over addiction.
GONYEA: You started a new label, J Records, and there have been more artists. One of those that you write about in the book is Kelly Clarkson. I'm sure you've seen it. This week she pushed back rather hard against some of the things you say in the book. You talk about disagreements you had over song selection. You talk about a very emotional moment in your office where she started crying. Can you respond to what she has said? She says you've got it all wrong.
DAVIS: Well, what we don't disagree on in memory is why she did not like "Behind These Hazel Eyes," or "Since U Been Gone," or what my first reaction was after she had recorded "Because Of You." So, I certainly stand by my memory. I gave the chapter to the six people independent now who, you know, worked with us together. They thoroughly verified that, you know, these chapters. I want to make it very clear: Kelly Clarkson is growing as a talent every year. She's going to continue to continue to have an important career. And I believe it will be a lasting one.
GONYEA: It gets to the relationship that you have with an artist. You give them advice. Sometimes they don't like the advice. Sometimes they take it. Sometimes they don't take it.
DAVIS: You know what's funny because I'm so aware of that. You know, over the years, whether it was Melissa Manchester, a wonderful artist who wrote "Midnight Blue" and "Come In From The Rain" and hated to do outside material. And I said, my God. I convinced her for a while. I gave her "Don't Cry Out Loud." I gave her "You Should Hear How They Talk about You." And she had big hits with it, but she in her head did not want to be a female Barry Manilow. She saw herself as Joni Mitchell. Well, she was not Joni Mitchell and now many years later - the same thing happened with Taylor Dayne. And just a few years ago, I get this wonderful note and letter from Taylor, why didn't give me shock therapy? Why did you let me in my 20s make decisions when you had all that expertise? I'm singing better than ever. Why don't we sign together now? And, of course, you know, the moment passes. None of this is personal. It's professional. You give the guidance that you can based on your expertise. And so for me, I keep the bar up there. My job - I get paid a lot of money, I say, to worry, and so I worry. Sometimes, artists don't care. It's not personal with me, but what is personal is that I don't let me guard down and that I do my job as best I can.
GONYEA: Clive Davis. Thank you so much for your time today.
DAVIS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINCE U BEEN GONE")
KELLY CLARKSON: (Singing) But since you been gone, I can breathe for the first time. I'm so moving on...
GONYEA: Clive Davis's new book is called "The Soundtrack of My Life." This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is back next week. I'm Don Gonyea.