NEW YORK – With his golden ear, Clive Davis is arguably the most important man in music.
Over the years, as grand pooh-bah of Columbia Records, Arista Records and J Records, he's proven his uncanny ability to spot stars -- Janis Joplin, Santana, Alicia Keys, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, Aerosmith, Sean Combs, The Grateful Dead and Lou Reed, among them.
Now Davis has been tapped to head RCA -- the flagship label of the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann (BMG).
There's irony in this new chapter in Davis' life. It was BMG that moved him out of the top slot at Arista in 2000, incidentally its best year, artistically and financially.
Davis, age 69 and father of four, takes umbrage at the public's notion that he was elbowed out, saying, "Words like 'kicked out' and 'ousted' never applied. Management did make a change, but they always believed in me."
Davis offers numbers to back him up.
"[BMG] gave me $150 million to start J Records. They gave me my entire management staff, five platinum artists and five draft picks of young artists I was already working with."
Some of those young unknowns still are, including Shannon Curfman, Abra Moore and Jimmy Cozier. But then there's Alicia Keys, whose Songs in A Minor has sold 5.4 million copies since its release.
Davis also brought over big names Angie Stone, Monica, LFO and Deborah Cox.
With his Midtown Manhattan pad and his self-made success, twice-divorced Davis is a lucky guy -- and knows it.
"I came from a family of no means whatsoever," he explained.
"I grew up in Brooklyn, and I went to NYU on a scholarship and then to [Harvard] law school on scholarship."
That's why he is now giving back: He donated $5 million to New York University's school of fine arts to create the first department of recorded music in the country. It will focus on record producing as an artistic discipline.
New York Post: You've just given NYU a load of money to teach kids what you accomplish instinctively.
Davis: It's not just instinct. I continually educate myself. I trust my instinct -- it's a gift -- but I never take the value of knowledge for granted, so I read everything I can and listen to music.
Post: Before you, other record company chiefs were just businessmen. You changed everything when you took the suit off and stepped over the line to the artistic side.
Davis: That started for me at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Until then, I was content to let the A&R staff run the creative side of Columbia. But I was at the right place at the right time, and I saw Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin. It was seat-of-the-pants stuff. I signed them there. I trusted my instinct, and it worked.
Post: Who else has stimulated your instinct?
Davis: Blood Sweat & Tears, Santana, Earth Wind & Fire, Aerosmith, Springsteen, Billy Joel, Patti Smith.
Post: Those artists have little in common with each other musically. What's the common denominator that drew you to them?
Davis: There isn't one. I love all music, from theater to rock 'n' roll. I can work with anyone, from Barry Manilow to Busta Rhymes, and maintain a healthy respect for the work.
Post: Artists like Whitney Houston are fiercely loyal when they speak about you. Is it because of that respect?
Davis: Whitney and I are family. We will always be family. Patti and I are family. When you forge a relationship like we have, they know how I love music and I'm there in the trenches with them. I fight for them, not like somebody who's part of the administration, but as a friend.
Post: Is that the way it is with you and Carlos Santana?
Davis: Absolutely. He was the third artist I ever signed. You could say we grew up together. We shared a Grammy as co-producers for the Supernatural album. Our relationship is very, very special.
Post: After the historic Supernatural, you probably didn't have to fight all that hard for the release of Santana's Shaman.
Davis: We did. There were the skeptics out there who doubted that history could repeat itself. The challenge was convincing them that Supernatural wasn't a fluke. It wasn't -- after just two weeks, Shaman has already sold 4.3 million (units) worldwide.
Post: Is loyalty the first lesson at NYU's department of recorded music?
Davis: Maybe. The second is remembering knowledge and intuition are an incredible accompaniment. Music is a tough business, and you can't take anything for granted.
Post: When people talk about you, your age is irrelevant. Why do you think that is?
Davis: The way you don't go over the hill is to make sure you're totally prepared for what direction music is going. I go home with music every night and listen to everything. Music keeps changing, and you risk everything by not staying current.
Post: You listen to the Hives, the Strokes?
Post: Is there any style you don't like?
Davis: I don't listen to heavy metal as much as I listen to material where the songwriting is more accessible, but I always respect the best of it and value it.