From his art-filled estate in an exclusive New York suburb, legendary music producer Clive Davis, at 89, Is hard at work. When Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office decided to put on a star-studded concert on August 21 to celebrate New York City’s return after pandemic lockdown, Davis got the call.
“You gotta live up to what the mayor’s been heralding as one of the great all-time concerts,” he said.
During his 50 years in the music industry, Davis has helped launch the careers of Paul Simon, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, and Whitney Houston.
Contributor Kelefa Sanneh asked, “To me it feels like New York is Gotham and when they need something done, they throw up the Bat Signal, and that’s your cue to spring into action.”
“We’ve all been through, you know, a terrible period during the pandemic,” Davis said. “It’s affected each of us individually, it’s affected our city. So, I’m takin’ it very seriously. I will certainly not relax ’til the end!”
“When they asked you to put together this concert to celebrate the reopening of New York, did you say yes immediately?”
“I said yes on the spot,” Davis smiled. “I’m born here, bred here.”
Davis was raised in Brooklyn the son of a salesman. After his parents died of sudden illnesses a year apart, he graduated from New York University thanks to a full scholarship.
“I’m indebted for the education and the life and the experiences that I’ve had in New York,” he said.
Sanneh asked, “And who was your first phone call after you agreed to do this?”
“Jon Landau, the manager of Bruce Springsteen.”
In 1972, Davis signed Springsteen to his first record deal. But Davis wanted his entire company to understand just how special he thought Springsteen was. “This special signing, this unique talent, you’ve got to understand his lyrics,” Davis said. “So, I made a video. I sent it to everybody who worked for Columbia Records, and I recited the lyrics to every song in the album.”
“He was just blinded by the light
Cut loose like a deuce (“What a great phrase that is!”) another runner in the night
Blinded by the light
Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Whoa, but mama that’s where the fun is”
And to this day, Springsteen says he’s grateful, as he told Davis during a recent Zoom call:
“You having the balls to get up in front of that camera and recite the words to ‘Blinded By the Light’!” Springsteen said. “It was fantastic, and I thank you for your dedication.”
These days, Springsteen was busy doing his one-man show on Broadway. But he signed on to the concert anyway. He and Patti Smith, another Davis protégé, will perform her hit, “Because the Night,” a song they wrote together.
Another name on the lineup is Paul Simon, who knows what it’s like to play for a big crowd in the middle of Central Park. He reunited with Art Garfunkel for a concert there 40 years ago.
“We were both really nervous,” Simon said. “That was a large group. But once you get out there, takes a little while, and then you fall into the rhythm of it and you’re OK. So, it was a big emotional event, and a really nice night for Artie and for me.”
Davis said he definitely reached out to Simon – and what was the response? “There was no convincing. When you have a personal connection with someone and your lives go differently, that connection doesn’t ever cease.”
Sanneh asked, “And then all of a sudden last year the pandemic happens. What was that like for you, for someone who’s used to having these kinds of personal connections with so many people?”
“The answer is that the personal connections continue, as life continues. They’re extended family.”
Now, at a time of renewed concern about COVID, Davis says that part of concert planning is the mayor’s job. “They’re assuring us the environment will be totally safe, and that proof of vaccination will have to be shown. Simon and Garfunkel had 500,000 in that space. We are not having 500,000. The maximum is 60,000.”
Davis wanted to make sure the concert had a wide range of headliners … yes, Springsteen and Simon, but also The Killers, the rising hip-hop star Polo G, and the Colombian pop sensation Maluma.
Sanneh asked, “Whether it’s the Monterey Pop Festival or working in Latin music, working with Black artists, how are you so comfortable in all those different places?”
“You had to be comfortable,” Davis replied. “They don’t play your records because you discovered Joplin or Springsteen. You know, you gotta prove it every time. I’ve always had to work hard. I believe in working hard.”
Davis shares that work ethic with many of the artists who will be performing at Saturday’s concert.
Springsteen said, “I had a band since I was fourteen-and-a-half, and it was the only thing I was really, deeply interested in.”
Simon said, “The joy is in the work, and I must say I do get a sense of pleasure out of the fact that millions of people really liked what I did and got something from it. Yeah, I do really like that.”
Sanneh asked, Davis, “Is there something special about a bunch of people coming together outside to listen to music?”
“We’re using music to not only change the mood, but we’re using music to symbolize rebirth, revival, recovery,” he replied. “And that is why it’s so special.”
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: David Bhagat.