Anyone with a Paula Cole CD collecting dust or an Arrested Development dashiki moldering in the closet has a right to be suspicious. Music executives prophesy long-term success for their artists all the time. Davis, however, has a track record. During his 35 years as a label president, he has signed and developed Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, Patti Smith, Laura Nyro, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston. "I'm not really sure what it is with him," says Alicia Keys, whom Davis introduced to the world at his 2001 pre-Grammy party. "He just knows talent when he hears it, and he never hesitates about his own instincts."
Even considering those formidable instincts, Davis, 68, is in the midst of a career resurrection few thought he would ever see. In 1999 Davis was the president of Arista Records, the label he founded and had run for 25 years, when Arista's German parent, Bertelsmann Music Group, pressed him to retire. After months of tabloid speculation about how Davis whose ego is a frequent subject of industry jokes ("Why does Clive Davis like CDs more than tapes? He thinks they were named after him") would respond, he surprised his critics, friends and corporate overlords by stepping aside without a peep. As a reward for his grace, Davis was given seed money to start J Records, where in a short time he piloted Alicia Keys to five Grammys and 10 million worldwide album sales. In November 2002 slumping BMG decided that perhaps Davis was still vigorous enough to lead both J and its RCA label; BMG bought out Davis' share in J for a reported $50 million and named him chairman of the new RCA Music Group.
With control of J's heavily urban roster and RCA's diverse slate which includes the Dave Matthews Band, Christina Aguilera, the Strokes and Foo Fighters Davis is again the most high-profile executive in the business. Still, he insists, "my job now is the same as ever. That is, deliver transcendent talent." In title, Davis is RCA's president of artist and repertoire; in reality he is too famous to scout talent (the competition circles at the sight of him), and as even he reluctantly admits, he's too old to be going out every night. Since his move to J, Davis has begun relying more on a team of five A.-and-R. executives Keith Naftaly, a former radio programmer; Peter Edge, who found Alicia Keys and Dido; James Diener, the rock guy; Trevor Jerideau, a hip-hop specialist; and Larry Jackson, a 21-year-old prodigy to do his legwork.
"It's not like the early days of rock anymore," says Naftaly, Davis' senior vice president of A. and R. "Maybe once in a career now will you come across something where you have total exclusivity, and it's a secret discovery. More often than not, all the record companies have access to the same pool of reasonably skilled, potentially viable acts." Davis' team carefully scours the pool before presenting acts to the boss. "I don't want us to come off as a bunch of insecure kids plotting for Clive's attention," says Naftaly, "but this is Clive Davis, and based on his legacy and his level of taste, you really, really don't want to miss."
In marathon listening sessions, the team members play Davis their finds while the boss sits at the head of a conference table, sips Diet Cokes and scans the lyric sheets that he demands accompany every submission. ("I'm much more lyric driven than track driven," says Davis.) When the music stops, Davis unleashes his opinion sometimes devastating. "I see no point in lying or holding back," he says. "If I hate something, I tell them." If Davis likes what he hears, he sets up a live performance in the label offices: "I do that to ensure quality. I am trying to get a sense of energy, to see if these acts have charisma. Many don't."
When Davis finds an act he wants to sign, he has the great advantage of being Clive Davis. "These kids," says a rival executive, "they go into his office, and they've heard Clive Davis thanked in every Grammy speech since they could talk. And he's very shrewd about playing up that celebrity." DeGraw, 2004's big thing, was all but signed with Atlantic Records when Davis heard his tape and arranged a meeting. He sat with DeGraw and went over the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two labels. Then he left the room and a J employee put on a videotape of Davis acolytes such as Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin and Steven Tyler gurgling praise for their mentor. "When Aretha Franklin says, 'Clive Davis is a god,'" says the rival executive, "who would you sign with?"