Legendary music industry executive and record producer Clive Davis knows talent. In his recent, bestselling autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life and when he spoke with Austin-tied author Elise Ballard, author of Epiphany: True Stories of Sudden Insight to Inspire, Encourage and Transform he shared how an usual career choice and being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference. Like, for instance, discovering a Port Arthur native singing sensation destined for immortality.
By completely trusting and acting on your instincts, the course of your entire life can change. Clive Davis
It was the summer of 1967, and of all places I was at the Monterey International Pop Festival. I had come out of a corporate law career, never expecting to be involved with music. But life is often shaped by fate, and about a year before an opportunity had come my way, out of the blue, to become head of Columbia Records. The world of creativity and music was totally new to me. So I set out to analyze how the company was operating, where music was heading, and whether the team that I had inherited could move the company forward into the next decade. I didn’t know our next step.
By good fortune, Lou Adler had just started Ode Records, and I’d made a label deal with him. Lou is one of the great music producers of all time—he handled artists like Johnny Rivers and The Mamas and The Papas. He and Abe Somer (the top music attorney at the time) were on the board of the Monterey International Pop Festival and they invited me to join them at the festival. All I assumed was that we were going to have fun. I knew that The Mamas and The Papas would be singing, as well as certain other major name artists. So I went there with my wife, expecting at most a weekend that would be entertaining. I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me.
I arrived in Monterey and went to the festival grounds and was literally stunned. It was a culture shock—everything was different. People had come from Haight-Ashbury, from other parts of San Francisco, from all over the West Coast. They were in flowing gowns, with long hair. And here we were in our preppy New York clothes…I remember we just looked so alien amidst this visual outpouring of love and peace—people greeting you with flowers, sometimes putting them in your hair. It was funny and fitting because my first record that I had brought into Columbia, from Lou’s Ode Records, was a single and the title of the song was If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair by an artist named Scott McKenzie. It literally took the country by storm and went straight to number one…and sure enough, at this festival there were more people here with flowers in their hair than not. At first it was a visual—people’s faces, the openness, the communal spirit, the hope, the idealism that pervaded them. I experienced a social and cultural shock. And even that paled by the next morning when we got to the festival grounds.
I didn’t know that new artists would be appearing at the festival, but when they started performing in the afternoon, it was clear that the music they were playing was completely new, unprecedented. I was sitting in the audience, and this group I’d never heard of came on, just billed as Big Brother and the Holding Company. Then this female dervish came on the stage. She was hypnotic, compelling, electrifying—she shook and sang and conveyed soul like no singer I had ever seen before. Of course, it was Janis Joplin.
I realized that a revolution was in the air, that what I was experiencing while watching Janis Joplin on that stage could change the rest of my life. And it did. My gut told me I had to sign this artist, that I needed to follow my instinct and move from the purely business arena into the creative. I was totally unsure whether I had ears or the talent for picking artists. I had never been trained for it. Before that moment, it had never occurred to me that I would be signing artists. But I just knew I had to move to the forefront and trust this instinct. And that’s what I did. I immediately met with Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin, and the group known as the Electric Flag, and signed both groups. Over the next thirty-six months I was to sign Blood, Sweat and Tears; Santana; Chicago; Loggins and Messina; and Earth, Wind and Fire.
It was only when subsequently these artists and others I signed came out and succeeded that I got some confirmation of my gift for identifying talent—which I’d never have thought in a million years that I had.
If I had stayed in law and just did tax, corporate work, and estate planning, it would have been a totally, totally different life. But I’ve now had the opportunity to interface and deal with unique and special talents like the Grateful Dead, Annie Lennox, Aretha Franklin, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen—renaissance women and men, people who have affected millions all over the world. It feels good today when people tell me how their lives have been affected by the music of artists that I’ve either signed, discovered, or developed. I consider it a great honor and gift to do the work I do, and it’s financially enabled me to do things like establish scholarships to help others, which is something I always hoped to do, since I was only able to attend college and law school because of the generosity of other people who had established scholarships.
Further, I’ve always felt that the music world has been portrayed inaccurately, usually negatively, regarding the executives coming out of it. The men who historically shaped the world of music—Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Goddard Lieberson, Jac Holzman, Mo Ostin, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, Jerry Wexler, and David Geffen—represented the best in the entire entertainment world: I wanted to help the next generation of music leaders. And so knowing how my career was affected by study, by being immersed in music, I’ve established this degree-awarding program at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University so those that study music can get a degree to learn and further their profession.
Without question, the most important epiphany of my life happened in the middle of the Monterey Pop Festival. By completely trusting and acting on my instincts, the course of my entire life changed. My life and career have been much more fulfilling and rewarding than I’d ever thought was possible. In truth, I still pinch myself all the time at my good fortune.