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Clive Davis made headlines when his doorstop of a biography, The Soundtrack of My Life (Simon and Schuster), recently filled bookstore shelves. The pop impresario revealed that he’s bisexual. He arrived at this great “relief,” as he calls it, during the heady days of Studio 54.
To many in industry circles, news of Davis’s bisexuality isn’t exactly “news.” But to everyday people who may know him only as that shady-looking, impeccably dressed guy behind the stratospheric career of Whitney Houston, maybe Davis’s bisexuality comes as a shock.
Outing himself, which Davis does in the last eight pages of the 586-page book, is just one of many self-congratulatory revelations. And that’s about as “juicy” as The Soundtrack of My Life gets. Written with Anthony DeCurtis, longtime contributing editor at Rolling Stone, the book is meant to be the definitive look at the life of Clive Davis in his own words. And that’s just fine. The man is indeed a pop legend. His Midas touch goes back to the 1960s when he was head of Columbia Records and guided the careers of Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, Bruce Springsteen and others. Before Davis’s arrival, Columbia’s biggest acts were supper club favorites such as Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis. He had a knack for mainstreaming acts brewing in the margins (Earth, Wind & Fire, Sly Stone, and later Patti Smith) and making schlock inescapable via mammoth careers he oversaw as the founder of Arista Records (Barry Manilow and Kenny G).
Also at Arista, Davis revitalized the careers of Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, pop-soul divas who certainly had nothing to prove at the dawn of the ’80s, but the two had long been stuck in a commercial slump. Davis made the 40-something artists relevant to a new generation, rescuing them from a life on the oldies circuit. Under Davis’s direction at Arista, which always favored style over substance, both Warwick and Franklin garnered platinum sales, something neither had done before. After early test runs with jazz-informed beauties Phyllis Hyman and Angela Bofill, Davis masterminded the career of the first black American sweetheart, who possessed a miracle of a voice and keen, Glamour magazine-ready looks. Her name was Whitney Houston.
Numbingly, laboriously, boringly, Davis details those achievements and others throughout the dense book. Most of his career high points are accompanied by sale figures and a list of awards won. You can just see Davis reclined in a plush leather chair, recounting the achievements, his fingers woven across his chest, a smile stretched across his face. No one is as proud of Clive Davis as Clive Davis. And those who didn’t take his advice swiftly fell into the “Where Are They Now” oblivion, particularly singers who fancied themselves as writers. When Melissa Manchester and Taylor Dayne insisted on writing their own material against Davis’s advice, their careers sank. Davis says all but, “I told you so.” When Houston mentioned the desire to write her own songs following the blockbuster success of her first two albums, Davis firmly persuaded her to leave the lyrics to others, to accept her “Olympian” status as an interpreter alongside Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra and Streisand. Houston didn’t bring up songwriting to him again.
But Kelly Clarkson, the inaugural “American Idol” winner who signed with Davis, wasn’t so easily dissuaded. Davis’s bisexual revelation wasn’t the only thing that made the news before his book came out. Clarkson publicly countered Davis’s version of the making of “My December,” Clarkson’s sophomore album, which she mostly wrote. Davis dismissed it as a failure. The album went platinum and garnered a Top 10 hit. Clarkson said Davis verbally slashed her, calling her a “shitty writer.” Davis’s account made him look like the wise elder dealing with a delusional ingrate. Clarkson’s story seems more believable.
The only time the book registers anything close to emotional resonance is in the early chapters, when Davis speaks of growing up Jewish in Brooklyn during the 1930s. He adored his mother, who loved fashion. Later in the book, the chapters about Whitney Houston’s decline are at times poignant. He said he invited her to his house and talked to her directly about her addictions, of which she was in complete denial. He includes letters he wrote to her throughout her career, advising her on her stage show, urging her to come back into the studio. He talks about his decision to go on with his legendary pre-Grammy party, even as Houston’s corpse was still in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Davis hosted the event.
Davis’s story is indeed interesting. To go from a Brooklyn kid who didn’t care much for music and become one of pop’s splashiest tastemakers is almost a quintessential you-can-make-it-if-you-try tale American figures love to share. And when you’re Clive Davis, you do it in an auspicious, oversized, self-loving, ultimately sleep-inducing way.
The Soundtrack of My Life
By Clive Davis
Simon and Schuster
Hardcover, 9781476714783, 608 pp.