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