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The Record Breaker

After 25 years at Arista Records, Clive Davis '56 hopes the hits will keep on coming.

photo of Clive Davis"It was the most vigorous year of uncertainty that I've ever had in my life."

Clive Davis '56 was not talking about the past year, when the music executive was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while reports swirled about the end of his 25-year reign at Arista Records. The time was long before Clive Davis discovered and signed a coterie of talent that reads like a Who's Who of recent music history. Indeed, it was long before Clive Davis knew a thing about music.

It was during his first year of Harvard Law School, when achieving the one and only career goal he ever envisioned for his life--becoming a lawyer--seemed even more precarious than discovering a multiplatinum artist. It was then that a Jewish kid from a working-class background in Brooklyn found himself for the first time living outside New York, in an elite institution, surrounded by students molded by the best preparatory schools, and feeling the pressure to maintain a B average to keep his HLS scholarship.

"I had so many adjustments at the time, it was hard to single one out," said Davis. "This change was magnified by the campus of Harvard and the different nature of the student body."

Davis kept his scholarship at HLS, buoyed by the knowledge that education was a means to "rise above your station." That meant, to him, becoming a lawyer. For what else could a young man from a modest background, who spoke well, who studied hard, do?

He would soon find out.

* * *

Today, Clive Davis lives high enough in the sky to see beyond Brooklyn from his midtown Manhattan penthouse. He is 67, an age when he may be expected to look back at his career and the successes that afforded him his luxurious surroundings. And he will gladly recount those flush times, as well as some tough times, though he reserves his greatest passion for considering the times ahead.

The press, however, has focused on the recent times. Many media outlets reported that Davis was engaging in a high-stakes imbroglio last year with BMG Entertainment, the corporate parent of Arista Records, which declined to renew his contract as head of the label. Many artists praised Davis and some criticized BMG for its treatment of him.

But for Davis, the entire story can be synthesized in one word: Business.

"I certainly have had to live with a few months where the speculation was puzzling, and the facts were very simply those of business," said Davis. "There was never a question that BMG wanted a major involvement with me. That was never up for grabs."

At issue, said Davis, were his contract, his age, and his equity stake in Arista. Davis cited the retirement policy of Bertelsmann AG, the media giant that counts BMG as one of its units; executives in the company's German headquarters must retire at 60. As the end of his contract approached last year, Davis said BMG balked at signing him to a new deal with Arista because of his age. In addition, according to Davis, the company devised a succession plan that did not reflect his partnership interest in Arista.

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