Clive Davis played a key role in transforming the Columbia label into a major force within the record industry in the late 1960s. He went on to prove that this success was no fluke by working the same magic for Arista in the 1970s.
A Harvard Law School graduate destined to go far in the legal profession, Davis opted for a somewhat unconventional career path. Hired by Columbia as a contract lawyer in 1960, David gained recognition shortly thereafter by getting Bob Dylan—whose original contract had become void when the singer turned twenty-one—to renew with terms favorable to the company. His astute judgment and fair-mindedness in dealing with both associates and label clients enabled him to move up the ranks, becoming president in 1967.
Before Davis took over, Columbia had been slower than any other major label to sign—and promote—rock artists. This conservative approach had been dictated in part by Artist & Repertoire Head Mitch Miller’s well-known antipathy for the genre. Davis, however, seemed free of the prejudices found in many of the musicians occupying the company’s management positions; he understood that rock was entering an era of unprecedented creativity. He moved quickly to sign large numbers of talented new rock acts, including Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin), the Electric Flag, Santana, Chicago, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel. The Billboard pop album charts tell the story of Columbia’s shift in fortunes: between 1965-1967 none of its releases reached the number one position; in 1968, its releases spent twenty-four weeks at number one; in 1969, eleven weeks; and in 1970, eighteen weeks.
Despite the label’s commercial success and newfound artistic credibility, many upper echelon staffers chafed at the alleged egomania displayed by Davis. An internal investigation revealed irregularities such as faked invoices and expense accounts connected with Davis, which led to his dismissal in 1973. He would later provide a different account of these developments in his autobiography, Clive: Inside the Record Business (New York: William Morrow, 1975).
By the mid-1970s, Davis had been hired to head the record division at Columbia Pictures. After renaming the company Arista, he signed Barry Manilow, who went on to become a major recording star. Arista’s roster would eventually rival that of his former label, including the Grateful Dead, the Kinks, Eric Carmen, Graham Parker, Air Supply, Whitney Houston, and Alan Jackson.
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