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Clive Davis Talks Unreleased Whitney Houston Music, Lil Nas X’s Coming Out

James Patrick Herman

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Retirement may be trending in the music business — Paul Simon, Elton John, er, Nicki Minaj? —  but at 87, Clive Davis, who currently holds the position of chief creative officer for Sony Music, has no plans to call it quits. In fact, he’s as ubiquitous as ever on streaming services where his eponymous doc, subtitled “The Soundtrack of Our Lives,” hits Netflix today two years after debuting on Apple Music.

The film charts Davis’ unprecedented 50-year career, but beyond celebrating the New York native as a survivor and visionary, it also heralds him as an agent of social change. “Whether it’s the issue of sexual identity, whether it’s racism, whether it’s music that crosses over genres without forcing it to be pigeonholed, the documentary shows all of that,” says Davis, who recently caught up with Variety.

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How did the documentary end up on Netflix two years after its debut on Apple Music?
The film was owned by IM Global and they had sold all of their assets to a Chinese company [Global Road Entertainment]. But the assets of that company were tied up in litigation, and nobody could extricate any one asset like the film until two or three months ago. And Netflix has always been interested in the film.

As a longtime champion of female artists, you’ve helped to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a less male-dominated place.
When I look back at them individually and cumulatively, beginning with Janis Joplin, including the great Patti Smith, apart from Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox, beyond Whitney and Alicia, they’re not just successful. Without waxing enthusiastic or getting sentimental, each is an outstanding example of a brilliant, unique, Hall of Fame-kind of artist. It was really an honor for me to be involved with each of them. To this day when I see Patti Smith perform it rivets every bone in my body; she’s magical. What the documentary does is enable me to look back with great pride that I’ve been as involved as I was with so many special, free-thinking, leading lights of creativity.

There wasn’t much fanfare when you dropped Kygo’s remix of Whitney Houston’s cover of “Higher Love.” Was it an intentionally low-key release?
I don’t think it was intentional at all. We were all very excited by it. Normally I always met with Whitney and we narrowed down songs that I and my A&R staff had come up with, which really was every song she recorded [during her years with Davis]. She wasn’t the type who ever went into the studio to vibe with someone. We had to have demos of each song she would be recording — there was no vibing in studios at all. That was not [her] process. This was the only time that after a session with producer Narada Michael Walden a song came into me, and that was when the two of them did “Higher Love.”

How many more unreleased Whitney Houston songs are there?
Well, I am going through her performances at my Grammy party, where she appeared a lot, to see the quality of what we have available. In my documentary, there is a brief inclusion of the duet she did with Natalie Cole [“This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)”], which was electrifying. We’re exploring an album of Whitney which will include “Higher Love” as well as other unreleased cuts.

Her estate also has plans for a Whitney hologram tour. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m sure it will only be done if it is perfection. If I saw something and thought it was electrifying, that’s one thing; I haven’t yet. I am not taking a position one way or another because I’ve not seen what the current state of the technology is.

It seems like no two album release campaigns are the same these days.
There’s no rule. On occasion, a major, giant artist can just drop an album with no advance promotion. But I’m one that believes in preparation and the still-vital role of record companies. So often they are slighted as, well, what do they contribute? They contribute an enormous amount. Yes, streaming has come about to revolutionize the industry, but radio, video exposure, the increasing role of live performances everywhere are still vital.

Taylor Swift believes that artists should have the opportunity to own their masters. Do you agree?
I leave that issue between the lawyers representing the artist and the lawyers representing the record company. Like anything else it’s a negotiation. I don’t believe that new artists have gotten it or will get it — the investment today by record companies is still strong and involves a lot of money. There are two sides to the story.

Any Grammy predictions?
It’s too early for that. I haven’t yet started to think about who I’m going to invite to my Grammy party.

What are your thoughts on the success of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road?”
That started off with a controversy: Should it be on the country music chart or not? The point of the matter is: Through the song interpretations, all of the remixes, so many different memes, it really bringing more and more current vitality and support. I loved seeing all the creativity that went into that.

Did you ever think there would be a day when hip-hop and country music came together?
It’s my fondest wish that artists of all genres can have a commonality of great music. When my career began and I inherited the initial artist roster of Columbia Records, I saw the incredible respect Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan had for each other. Carlos Santana was a rock virtuoso guitarist who loved Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin. If you’re a great artist, you’re going to appeal across genres. You’re not going to be told: Stay in your corner. I love it when you cross genres and incorporate more than one genre into your music. So I have great respect for purists, but I especially have great respect for Bruce Springsteen. To see how he’s evolved over the years: Yes, he can be in an arena of 60,000 people or he can be on a Broadway stage in front of 1,500. He refuses to be pigeonholed, straight-jacketed. You shouldn’t only do one thing — you should be allowed to expand creatively throughout your career. So to see a new artists like Little Nas X cross genres and appeal universally? It’s exciting.

He came out relatively early in his career and it surprised a lot of people. It seems to be a different world today where young artists want to be open with their fans. But Barry Manilow only came out two years ago.
I think it is a different world now, although I don’t think it’s a non-issue. We’re yet to see in film a gay actor play a romantic leading role. I think it’s very encouraging among young people [who identify as fluid] who won’t be categorized or classified in only one way. There is certainly a greater openness, as you said, reflected by Little Nas X or Frank Ocean. But we still have a way to go so that it’s not an issue at all in any area whether it be music or film. I’ll feel better once the next presidential election is over.

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