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Clive Davis: It Never Pays to Be a Know-It-All

The former head of Columbia Records learned early on what all CEOs must do: Embrace your strengths--and hire around your weaknesses.
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Clive Davis started his career as a lawyer. As he recounts in his new autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life, Davis spent several years working as general counsel for Columbia Records before a fortuitous political reorganization landed him at the helm of the company. That's when, to the benefit of the American musical canon, Davis found his true talent.

The moment that really jump-started my career happened a year and a half after I became head of Columbia Records. I went to the Monterey Pop Festival, where I expected to see Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas & the Papas, artists I was familiar with.

It turned out there was a showcase of new artists the first afternoon. It was the beginning of hippie culture, and in the midst of all the flowing robes, I stood out in my khaki pants and tennis sweater.

I had come just to be entertained, but what I found was a musical revolution. I had never signed an artist from scratch before. But I could see the future in front of me. I sensed that an artist named Janis Joplin, in the band Big Brother and the Holding Company, was very special. So I dedicated myself to signing that group.

That's when I discovered I had what they call ears. After that, I signed Blood Sweat & Tears, Santana, Bruce Spring­steen, and Chicago.

I founded Arista Records in 1974. At the time, most small companies would specialize in one kind of music. I wasn't going to do that. I wanted Arista to be diversified. I wanted it to be a major label in every area of music. We signed Barry Manilow, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston. We also signed Patti Smith, Lou Reed, the Grateful Dead, and the Kinks.

Then R&B started changing, and hip-hop and rap were entering the picture. I realized there comes a time when you have to evaluate what you, personally, simply cannot do. It's not delegating. It's realizing you really need someone else to strengthen your organization and help you foresee the trends you might overlook.

So I made two label deals. With L.A. Reid and Babyface, I co-founded LaFace Records. With Puffy Combs, I co-founded Bad Boy Records. I was never going to discover a rapper, but Puffy discovered Notorious B.I.G. and Mase. And I wasn't into blue-collar music, but L.A. and Babyface brought in Usher, TLC, Toni Braxton, and Pink. When you add that list to what I brought in--bands like Air Supply, Ace of Base, and Kenny G--we had a dramatic increase in market share.

I've learned it never pays to be a know-it-all. I've been very fortunate that every label I've started has gotten off to a fabulous beginning, but I never take anything for granted. You've got to prove yourself every single time.

Graduated Harvard Law School: 1956
Arista's first release: "Mandy," by Barry Manilow
Grammy awards: Five

 




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