By Randall Roberts
McClatchey-Tribune News Service
---- — Among the dozens of musical luminaries referenced in record man Clive Davis’ new autobiography, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” are a number of wild cards and surprises.
Yes, Davis devotes pages to his close affiliations with Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, Patti Smith, Aretha Franklin, Santana, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys. But fans of rock history will be equally transfixed by some of the little details.
Davis’ success over 50 years as an executive with the Columbia, Arista, BMG, J Records and Sony record labels has made him the face of the recording establishment. A smart, shrewd businessman whose ear for hits is legendary, Davis in “The Soundtrack of My Life” rolls through his career, artist by artist, deal by deal, classic album by classic album. He’s got some stories.
For example, Davis’ first job was as a lawyer at Columbia Records, home to a young Bob Dylan, who had wanted to include a song called “Talking John Birch Society Blues” on his 1963 album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” The song was a critique of a then-thriving right wing political group, and contained lines that Davis as Columbia counsel felt were libelous. He had to inform an infuriated young Dylan that the song wouldn’t make it onto the record.
“‘What is this?’” Davis recalls Dylan saying. “‘What do you mean I can’t come out with this song. You can’t edit or censor me!’”
Throughout “The Soundtrack of My Life,” Davis writes with calm openness, aided by longtime Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis, of his illustrious career as a hit maker.
He also gets personal, publicly revealing that he’s bisexual, and has over the past two decades been in two long-term relationships with men, as well as other sorts of relationships.
“There were married couples, gay couples, and single men and women, both straight and gay,” he says.
He treats this news with the same directness as he does with other aspects of his life.
Davis also had a long relationship with the Grateful Dead, who would release late-period studio albums with his then-new label Arista. Years earlier, though, he had tried to woo them to Columbia, and describes a memorable meeting with the band to brainstorm ideas in 1972.
Writes Davis, “One of their interesting solutions to getting around the record-label distribution system was to sell their albums directly to consumers through a fleet of ice cream trucks. Without insulting them, I tried to impress upon them just how impractical and inefficient that system would be. That was one notion they eventually abandoned.”
The most bittersweet and heartbreaking chapters regard Davis’ signing of a teenage Whitney Houston to Arista. He goes through his life with the late singer, whom he helped make an international superstar and one of the best selling recording artists of all time.
Davis reprints a number of letters he wrote to Houston over the years, including both generous appraisals of her work and stern, yet loving, expressions of concern over her well-being. One note, written after Houston appeared during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 2001, Davis writes, “She looked skeletal.”
He then wrote her a letter that started, “When I saw you Friday night at the Michael Jackson concert I gasped. When I got home, I cried. My dear, dear Whitney, the time has come.”
He then pleads with her to get help, explaining that he and her family love her, and it’s hurting everyone. “Our anguish, our fear, our pain is just too much to bear. You must get help for yourself and for your close extended family.”