Clive Davis

Legendary Music Label Executive

Clive Davis Whitney Houston
Clive Davis with Whitney Houston. Photo by Larry Busacca / WireImage

Clive Davis is one of the most prominent music industry executives of all day. As president of Columbia Records from 1967 to 1973, founder of Arista and J Records, and chairman of the RCA Music Group, he has had an incalculable influence on the history of popular music.

Early Life

Born April 4, 1932, Clive Davis grew up in Brooklyn, New York as part of a working class Jewish family. The name Clive, given by his mother, came from a favorite British actor.

His parents both died when he was a teenager leaving Clive an orphan with no money of his own. He moved in with his married sister in Queens. After graduating magna cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa from New York University, Clive Davis received a scholarship to attend Harvard Law School. He graduated in 1956 ready to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a practicing lawyer.

Columbia Records

Clive Davis began his career with a small firm, but a year later the firm lost its major client and Davis was laid off. He was then hired by Rosenman, Colin, Kaye, Petschek and Freund. One of their major clients was CBS, owner of Columbia Records. The record label offered Clive Davis a position in their legal department. One of his first successes at the label was the renegotiation of Bob Dylan's contract. Clive Davis discovered he loved music and his career path was set. When Columbia Records was reorganized in 1965, president Goddard Leiberson appointed Clive Davis administrative vice president and general manager.


Quote from Clive Davis

From the Harvard Law Bulletin on what he likes best about his job:

"Certainly that first appraisal, to be able to spot a unique talent and say yes, and then to see that artist become a worldwide success. There's a lot of steps in between, you know. So it's hard to leave out the process.

But the discovery is the most exciting."

Ousted With a Guilty Plea

By 1967 Clive Davis became president of CBS Records, the parent of Columbia Records. One of his first signings was British artist Donovan who promptly had a string of American hits. He also discovered and signed many legends of contemporary pop music including Janis Joplin, Santana, Bruce Springsteen, Chicago, Billy Joel, and Pink Floyd. Attending the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 at the urging of friend and associate Lou Adler was an eye opening experience for the young executive.

Columbia Records soared with its new ventures in pop and rock music. In part, due to their investment in rock music, Columbia doubled their market share within three years. Aerosmith and Earth, Wind and Fire were added to the label in the early 1970s. However, by 1973, things turned sour at the corporate level and Clive Davis was fired in the midst of investigations about financial wrongdoing. He gave a guilty plea to tax evasion charges and was forced to pay a $10,000 fine.

Arista Records

After being fired by CBS Records, the film company Columbia Pictures, at the time unrelated to the Columbia Records label, hired Clive Davis to consult on their record and music operations.

Within a year Davis had combined the division's record labels, Colgems, Colpix, and Bell, into one and renamed the enterprise Arista after his secondary school honor society. Barry Manilow was one of the first successful artists on the label. Clive Davis grew Arista into one of the music industry's most successful labels with landmark albums by such artists as Whitney Houston, Air Supply, Aretha Franklin, and Annie Lennox.

In an effort to avoid bankruptcy, Columbia Pictures sold Arista in 1979 to German's Ariola Records. Ariola bought RCA Records in 1986 and folded the two into the new Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG). In 1990, Arista became mired in the Milli Vanilli lip synch scandal. The duo's Best New Artist Grammy Award was revoked, they were relieved from their Arista contract, and the duo's six times platinum Girl You Know It's True album was deleted from the Arista catalogue.

Clive Davis expanded Arista's reach into country music by opening Arista Nashville and signing artists such as Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, Pam Tillis, and Brad Paisley. Similarly, in R&B, he opened LaFace records with L.A. Reid and Babyface as well as Bad Boy Records with Sean Combs. Those moves brought TLC, Usher, Pink, the Notorious B.I.G., and Faith Evans under the Arista umbrella.

The Year 2000 - A Turning Point

In the year 2000, amid reports of disagreements with his parent conglomerate BMG, Clive Davis was ousted from the leadership of Arista and replaced by L.A. Reid. The action was taken despite public statments on the behalf of Davis by such music legends as Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin. The same year Clive Davis received 3 Grammy Awards, one for lifetime achievement and 2 for producing Santana's landmark Supernatural album. At the peak of his career it appeared that Davis had been forced into early retirement.

J Records

As it turned out, BMG was not interested in permanently severing ties with Clive Davis. The corporation invested $150 million in a new venture, the label J Records, named after Davis' middle name Jay. With a 50% ownership in the label, Clive Davis soon set about doing what he does best, generating hit records and discovering hot new artists. Among his signings to the label were Alicia Keys and Busta Rhymes. J Records also helped revitalize the careers of music industry legends Luther Vandross and Rod Stewart.

Inducted Into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

In 2000, Clive Davis reached another career milestone.

He was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in the non-performer category. The induction was presented by punk rock legend Patti Smith. Her career was launched into high gear when she was signed by Arista Records and her landmark debut album Horses was released in 1975.

RCA Records Group and American Idol

In 2003 BMG promoted Clive Davis further up the ladder. He was put in charge of the RCA Records Group which included both the RCA and Arista record labels. Eventually Davis was made CEO of BMG North America. In his role as head of RCA Records, Clive Davis was a key figure in signing and helping mold the early careers of many American Idol alumni.  In 2011, both Arista Records and J Records, founded by Clive Davis, were dissolved in a corporate restructuring and all of the artists were moved to RCA Records.

Death of Whitney Houston

Clive Davis was a key mentor in the career of Whitney Houston. He was executive producer of her comeback album in 2009. On February 9, 2012, she was planning to perform live at Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy Awards party slated for February 11. At Clive Davis' side, she visited with singers Brandy and Monica while they were rehearsing for the event. Two days later she died in the afternoon in advance of the annual party. Clive Davis conducted the party as planned, but it turned into a tribute to Whitney Houston.

Key Albums From Clive Davis' Career


  • 1980 - Air Supply - Lost In Love - Executive Producer
  • 1985 - Whitney Houston - Whitney Houston - Executive Producer
  • 1985 - Aretha Franklin - Who's Zoomin' Who - Executive Producer
  • 1987 - Whitney Houston - Whitney - Executive Producer
  • 1989 - Barry Manilow - Barry Manilow - Executive Producer
  • 1989 - Taylor Dayne - Can't Fight Fate - Executive Producer
  • 1990 - Whitney Houston - I'm Your Baby Tonight - Executive Producer
  • 1992 - Soundtrack - The Bodyguard - Executive Producer
  • 1992 - Expose - Expose - Executive Producer
  • 1998 - Aretha Franklin - A Rose Is Still a Rose - Executive Producer
  • 1999 - Enrique Iglesias - Enrique - Executive Producer
  • 1999 - LFO - LFO - Producer
  • 1999 - Santana - Supernatural - Producer
  • 2001 - Alicia Keys - Songs In A Minor - Executive Producer
  • 2001 - Luther Vandross - Luther Vandross - Producer
  • 2002 - Rod Stewart - It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook - Producer
  • 2002 - Mario - Mario - Executive Producer
  • 2003 - Kelly Clarkson - Thankful - Executive Producer
  • 2003 - Clay Aiken - Measure of a Man - Producer
  • 2003 - Ruben Studdard - Soulful - Producer
  • 2004 - Kelly Clarkson - Breakaway - Executive Producer
  • 2005 - Bo Bice - The Real Thing - Producer
  • 2006 - Barry Manilow - Greatest Songs of the Fifties - Producer
  • 2009 - Whitney Houston - I Look To You - Executive Producer


Personal Life

Clive Davis was married twice, first to Helen Cohen from 1956 to 1965 and then to Janet Adelberg from 1965 to 1985. Both marriages ended in divorce. He has four children, Fred, Lauren, Mitchell, and Doug, as well as seven grandchildren. In his 2013 autobiography The Soundtrack Of My Life, Clive Davis came out as bisexual and revealed more than twenty years of relationships with men. 

Awards and Honors

Clive Davis has won four competitive Grammy Awards as producer including Album of the Year in 2000 for his work on Santana's Supernatural. In 2011, the Grammy Museum named its theater the Clive Davis Theater. Clive Davis received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1997.