August 14, 2013

Book Review: The Soundtrack of My Life by Clive Davis

Back in 1974 I read a book called Clive: Inside the Record Business and it remains one of my favorite non-fiction books. Still have the paperback edition. I was not many years from being a musician at the time, so reading about the inner workings of the record business was interesting and enlightening.

Now we have Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of My Life which is an updated version of that 1974 book in my estimation, covering his early years as well as his record executive experience up to 2012. I enjoyed the book but that's because I love any book that reveals the behind the scenes goings on, whether the movie, music or book business.

This is not a gossip filled account of celebrity musicians, but concentrates on the business side of how Clive Davis became a successful music executive and how he dealt with the singers and bands throughout his career and helped them become commercially successful.

The Soundtrack of My Life begins with his early life, family history, education and how he was able to become a lawyer despite his middle class, Brooklyn upbringing. Clive Davis did not set out to be a music mogul, but earned a scholarship to Harvard and, after getting his law degree, became a lawyer at Columbia records after a series of unplanned events.

He became the driving force who led Columbia Records from its successful history of pop classics, Broadway cast albums and movie soundtracks, to one of the major labels of rock n roll, and it all started at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The provocative rendition of the song Ball 'n' Chain by Janis Joplin and her band Big Brother and the Holding Company thoroughly enthralled Davis and he insisted on signing the group to Columbia, even though he wasn't really in charge of signing new artists at that point in time.

From Monterey Pop to American Idol, the history of Rock 'n' Roll behind the scenes is laid out, including his sudden firing at Columbia in the early 70's to the rise of Arista Records to the formation of J Records. The Soundtrack of My Life is filled with fascinating stories about some the most successful icons of music in the last 50 plus years.

A couple of stories stand out, those of Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin, the tragic demise of Whitney Houston and the amazing revival of Carlos Santana's career with the release of Supernatural, the number one hit of 1999.

There was an ongoing conflict between Clive Davis and some of his artists, including Manilow, regarding which songs would appear on their albums. Barry wanted to record just the songs he'd written, but Davis felt this was a mistake. Davis wanted Barry to allow him to choose two songs for each album, which Manilow finally agreed to. Thus many of Barry's major hits ended up being songs written by other songwriters, which helped boost him into super stardom. On the other hand, Taylor Dayne wouldn't agree to this arrangement, to her detriment. Her career rapidly declined after a few years and years later she expressed her regret to Clive Davis that she didn't follow his advise.

The stories about how Clive Davis helped revive the careers of both Aretha Franklin and Carlos Santana are fascinating. One important element of these stories is that Davis doesn't take all the credit for himself. He consistently lavishes praise on the producers, A & R personnel, songwriters and other company executives who took part in these successes.

The triumphs and tragedy of Whitney Houston is told in detail by Davis as he unsuccessfully attempted to steer her career away from the drugs and unhealthy relationship that ended up bringing her down. This is probably the longest section about one artist. Whitney Houston had a major impact on the music business and it's sad that such a talent could lose everything due to addictions that suffocated her life. But it's a common tragedy in the world of celebrities and a stark warning for those who are paying attention.

Of course, The Soundtrack of My Life is an autobiography, so we are getting the stories from one point of view. I'm sure there are those who will have major disagreements with how Clive Davis renders the facts. In fact, there are many who believe that Clive Davis and the entertainment business is evil and has a bad influence on culture and society. So be it. There are many other publications out there with different opinions you can check out.

If you're not interested in the business side of the music business, then this probably isn't the book for you. I enjoyed the inside stories about how artists are signed and developed. I didn't really need the details about his sex life, but other than that, The Soundtrack of my Life is a fascinating history about how one man successfully became a major power player in the music business and changed the direction of rock 'n' roll forever.


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