On a late January afternoon, Clive Davis is sitting in his wood-paneled office in Sony Music's Manhattan headquarters. Soon he'll be off to catch the opening night of his pal Barry Manilow's new Broadway show. But right now he's gazing at his wall, which holds photos of him with just about every superstar musician through the years: Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys
, Aretha Franklin. Growing up in Brooklyn in the '30s and '40s, the legendary music mogul, now 80, was never obsessed with music-"My charts were baseball charts!"-and today sometimes even he can't believe his enormous success. "Luck played a part," he says.
Luck and a phenomenal gift for recognizing, nurturing and selling talent. In his new memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life
, the five-time Grammy-winning Hall of Famer reflects on his nearly five decades as a record producer and executive, discovering and guiding performers like Houston and Alicia Keys, overseeing the careers of, at one time, Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan and helping Santana make a huge comeback in 1999. "The breadth of styles he can bring to the top-no one can touch that," says Bill Werde, Billboard
's editorial director. "Clive deeply feels the music."
His memoir also pulls back the curtain on his personal life. Though married twice and father to four grown children, he reveals that he is bisexual and that his current relationship is with a man. Though he says he never hid his sexual orientation from those closest to him, he's telling the rest of the world in his book because "this is the story of my life," he says. "I knew I was going to include that important part of it."
Davis's rise began when he earned scholarships to N.Y.U. and later Harvard Law School. He got his first taste of the music industry in the '50s at a firm that represented Columbia Records, which hired him as its in-house counsel in 1960. Though Davis, who adored Broadway musicals as a kid, knew little about the record business and has no formal musical training, "I always had a tremendous quest for knowledge," he says. "I listened and learned."
That drive helped make him one of the most visionary music men in rock and roll. He says his secrets to picking winners are "intuitive" and that "you never know if an artist is going to explode." One of his earliest discoveries? Janis Joplin, whose performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Davis recalls, "was memorable and electrifying." Still, after he signed her to Columbia, their relationship wasn't exactly professional. Apparently unhappy with "the formality of signing a contract," Davis recalls with a laugh, "she thought we could sleep together!" He declined, but they were friends until her overdose death in 1970. "We had a very special connection."
The same could be said about Davis and Whitney Houston, whom he discovered singing with her mom, Cissy, in 1983. Overseen by Davis, Whitney's first two albums broke sales and chart records. "Her talent was prodigious," he says. Even as she struggled with drug addiction and a tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown, he stood by her. In his book he shares heartbreaking letters in which he pleads for Houston to go to rehab. "Our anguish, our fear, our pain is just too much to bear," he wrote in 2001, after seeing her looking gaunt in public. "You must get help."
Though she made some attempts to get clean, Houston never succeeded, and when Davis learned she had died hours before she was set to appear at his annual Grammy party in L.A. in 2012, "I was devastated," he says. Remembering the moments they shared-she would often munch on cheeseburgers while hanging out in his office-he fights back tears. "We would spend hours listening to music together. I was family and she was very comfortable. She didn't open up to too many people."
Davis's own personal life hasn't been turmoil-free. After splitting from his second wife in 1985, "I opened myself up to the possibility of a relationship with a man," he says. He found one with a doctor, with whom he was involved for 14 years until they split in 2004, and then with his current partner. He declines to name either man because "they're private people," but calls his domestic life these days ideal. "If I take a trip with my family, he comes with me. We just went to Spain. [Everyone] gets along great!"
Even at 80, Davis won't slow down. He stays in shape by seeing a physical therapist every morning, and he's working on new projects with Santana and Aretha Franklin as well as venturing into Broadway to oversee a revival of My Fair Lady
. "As long as my health holds out and the report cards are good," he says, "I'll still really enjoy what I do."