“I refuse to be bullied and I just have to clear up his memory lapses and misinformation for myself and for my fans,” Clarkson wrote in an online post that affirmed her reputation as a strong-minded spitfire and brought even more attention to the recently released book by Davis, who, for the record, stands by his published account of that episode.
Not that there was any doubt, but this man still knows how to craft and promote a piece of work for maximum buzz-generating effect. Yet those who plan to buy “The Soundtrack of My Life” should know that it isn’t exactly a juicy tell-all. It’s more of a humble-brag-all, one that trumpets Davis’s many accomplishments while often relying on the sort of diplomatic prose normally reserved for internal workplace memos.
Of course, the 80-year-old hitmaker who has launched and reignited a staggering number of high-profile music careers — including those of Janis Joplin, Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Alicia Keys and, most famously, Whitney Houston — probably doesn’t care about wowing anyone with his capacity to turn phrases. What he does care about is ensuring that his version of industry history gets documented, in permanent, published ink. On that front, he’s done his job; its writerly shortcomings aside, “Soundtrack” will undoubtedly be listed as required reading on many History of Pop Music college-seminar syllabuses.
Davis’s career is certainly worthy of study. Despite the fact that he had “little interest” in early rock-and-roll, the Brooklyn boy with the Harvard law degree eventually proved — first at Columbia Records and later at his own Arista and J Records — that he possessed a discerning eye for talent and an irrefutable knack for finding songs that could catapult under-the-radar acts to mega-popularity. His work with Houston — his greatest achievement, with the most tragic outcome — is covered in the book’s lengthiest chapter, which, naturally, recounts the shock Davis experienced after learning of Houston’s death in 2012, just hours before she was to attend his annual pre-Grammy Awards party. “There are moments when time stands still, and you feel as if you can’t even begin to comprehend the words that are being spoken to you,” he writes. “That’s how I felt right then.”
Davis also recounts his uber-involved and occasionally blunt approach to guiding Houston and other artists, particularly those — like Manilow, Clarkson and Melissa Manchester — who wanted to compose their own music instead of singing the radio-ready melodies Davis selected. During a particularly contentious confrontation with Manilow — who, according to Davis, resented performing “I Write the Songs” when he knew that he hadn’t written many of his best-known ones — Davis exploded at the superstar: “Well, if you were Irving Berlin, we would know it by now!”
After acknowledging such creative clashes, Davis follows up with gushy compliments about the immense genius of these artists. Even now, this old pro doesn’t want to burn any bridges.
As observant as he seems to be, Davis occasionally claims to have been clueless about details that are hard to believe he missed. He says, for example, that he “was unaware of [Janis Joplin’s] drug use.” He also swears that he initially had no idea the members of Milli Vanilli — the most notorious lip synchers in fake-singing history — didn’t perform the tracks on their hugely successful debut American album, which was distributed by Davis’s Arista. “I was shocked to learn that because I was a well-known musical executive, and I’d submitted songs for this notorious album, people thought I was in on this elaborate scheme,” he writes. “Shocked”? Really? When Davis has a reputation for being as hands-on as his two upper appendages will allow?
As for that aforementioned bisexuality bombshell, it doesn’t appear until the book’s final chapter, when Davis acknowledges publicly for the first time that, following divorces from the two women who gave birth to his four children, he has primarily been in long-term romantic relationships with men. He speaks about his orientation with a personal openness that might have enlivened other portions of the text, where a somewhat stilted, businesslike tone pervades.
But perhaps businesslike is appropriate for a man like
Davis, a creative force but also an astute businessman, one who
instinctively knows how to get deals done, spot a sure singing thing and harness a
vocalist’s powers until the hitmaking heavens are left with no choice, really, but to make it rain.
Chaney is a freelance pop culture writer and former Celebritology blogger for The Washington Post.