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Clive Davis worked with Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and Barry Manilow. (anthony jenkins/the globe and mail)
Clive Davis worked with Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and Barry Manilow. (anthony jenkins/the globe and mail)

How the man behind the Boss, Barry Manilow and the Notorious B.I.G. stays on top of his game Add to ...

Clive Davis might be the most influential executive in the history of modern music, having helped steer the careers of the Boss, Barry Manilow and the Notorious B.I.G. – and that’s just the Bs. In his new memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life, Davis reflects on nearly a half-century of star-making. We asked him for some of the secrets to his success.

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Aim high, bet big

If I were to have a golden rule in terms of discovering talent it would be to set the bar high and never let it come down. I have never signed anyone that I didn’t truly and thoroughly believe in. [I’m not the kind of producer who] signs 10 and hopes that one will work out.

Get your head out of the books

When I was growing up, I absolutely loved reading. I could have immersed myself in that world totally, but my parents were adamant that I understood the importance of people skills. I grew up a melting-pot neighbourhood. They insisted that I get out there and mix with other people and play all of the Brooklyn sports – touch football or spit ball. They taught me that you don’t just retreat into your ivory tower, and for me that has been so important.

Go with your gut

I’d never signed an artist before I signed Janis Joplin [who was performing with Big Brother and the Holding Co.]. I was at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and I just felt an epiphany. It was a cultural and musical revolution and I was seeing this vibrating, electrifying, white soul sister. I had never seen anything like that in my life, and I trusted my gut. When I saw Whitney [Houston], she was performing in her mother Sissy’s act at a club here in New York. I knew that this artist was very special.

It’s true what they say about the best-laid plans

Not everybody that you sign is going to make it. There was a very promising group in the late ’70s. They were called the Alpha Band and I really thought they were the cat’s meow. They had a great writer in T-Bone Burnett, who would later emerge as a major force in music. They had a really riveting young violinist and a strong vocalist. They had all these great ingredients, but for whatever reason they failed to combust. That happens.

You don’t always have to be the big man

Most artists are a strange mix of ego and vulnerability, so I expect a little bit more emotional range from them than I would from a guy going to work at the bank every day. I tend to respect the ego because it’s what allows them to take the kind of risks they take in putting themselves on the line every time they perform. My philosophy [in dealing with artists] is to recognize them as the dominant figures in the relationship. I just try to be the most informed person that they’re going to run into. I want to be able to back up what they have to do as artists with as much support and expertise and knowledge as I can.

Keep up with the kidsEvery weekend I bring home tapes of the hits from all of the current genres – rock, hip hop or pop – and I listen to them and make sure I understand what’s happening with the trends. If you’re going to compete, you have to do it with the same vigour you always did. I’ve seen too many of my friends get too steeped in yesteryear and go over the hill.

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