Clive Davis/Howard Stern – The Song Must Fit the Artist
I caught a recent episode of the newly minted Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace—a rational journalist who fell out of favour at FOX News, yet quickly clenched prime ground at CNN, 7 PM Sunday
By Bill King
I caught a recent episode of the newly minted Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace—a rational journalist who fell out of favour at FOX News, yet quickly clenched prime ground at CNN, 7 PM Sunday evenings. Wallace fills the long-vacated role previously inhabited by talk interviewer Larry King.
Wallace opened the season by engaging Canadian country music star Shania Twain. An unusual choice for American television. Two Sundays back, recording industry giant Clive Davis appears, who, at 90 years of age, still packs the wit, charisma and curiosity that accompanied him through the progression of contemporary music. 1967-1973 at the helm of CBS Records signing Janis Joplin, Donovan, Earth Wind & Fire, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Laura Nyro, and Pink Floyd, among others, and long enough to fall victim to accountant’s hostile to his lavish spending habits.
Time passed, and Davis rebounded as head of Arista Records and inaugurated the careers of Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston, sold the company, then founded LaFace with such hit artists as TLC, Usher, Pink, Toni Braxton, and others. At 90, he’s the Chief Creative Officer at Song Music.
We seldom get an insider’s view of what passes through the mind of a visionary when ears that count are receptive to a new artist. What do they hear? What are they looking for beyond that human electricity? How do they perceive that first hearing so as not to be fooled?
Davis has had a lifetime to consider his judgments and reflect on those artists that left an imprint on him. During the Wallace interview, Davis recalls the moments of clarity—locating the right song for an artist.
Manilow was a singer-songwriter – Davis wanted a hit for him and handed him, Mandy. Englishman Scott English wrote the lyrics, and Richard Kerr the music, English having the original triumph, the song then titled Brandy. The name was soon changed as not to be confused with Looking Glass’s Brandy. Manilow was unhappy about recording outside material, but after a bit of arm tugging, he conceded and a star was born. Kerr and Will Jennings would pen two other Manilow staples – Looks Like We Made It and Somewhere in the Night.
Realizing if a song has hit potential and finding the relevant artist to give it life is the unlikeliest of abilities. Davis, a Harvard-schooled lawyer, has proven throughout his career, he has a seventh sense and can smell a hit song. Think about this. How many songs by well-connected, established, disciplined songwriters have reached his desk and barely an eyebrow raised?
Davis speaks of hearing Houston as a backup singer behind her mother, Cissy Houston, with two features in the set. One was The Greatest Love of All. Davis lost it. As he recalls in Wallace’s interview, the song had haunted him for seven years and knew there was someone out there that could do it justice. This brings us back to Davis’s genius. Understanding the strength of a great song and hearing the right voice layered in with it. Dolly Parton’s, I Will Always Love You, George Merrick, and Shannon Rubicam—I Wanna Dance with Somebody produced by Narada Michael Walden. Both songs were so far from the mainstream of pop, yet Davis heard it in his head and calculated the possibilities of spinning these gems into pop hits and succeeded.
Television, as we know it now, is all about quick jabs to stimulate impulse buying. It’s the role of the interviewers and documentary makers to preserve moments like this. Cheers to Wallace and the persistently in-tune MSNBC Ari Melber, who at 6 pm reminds us of hip-hop’s irresistible history and continuing staying power.
I reserve the 11 pm news hour for browsing YouTube as catch-up time with Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, Howard Stern, and the Hot Ones—chicken wings that torch the palates of celebrities. 2,000,000 Scoville units. The champ – Professor Phardtpounders Colon Cleaner.
Recently, the Stern network began running full episodes of his 1990 The Channel 9 Show—WWOR Secaucus, New Jersey. In the late eighties, the FOX Network looked at Stern as a replacement for the Joan Rivers Show, but after a few pilots nixed the thought. Stern then made four pilot programs for WWOR. From the downbeat, Stern doubled the viewing audience of Saturday Night Live in New York City. Stern hit the mark.
I took one for FYI Music News and watched a couple of episodes. Thirty-two years later, there’s no way this stuff would get aired today unless Stern cuts a deal with Infowars Alex Jones. Cringeworthy, repugnant, vile, and hilarious! Throw Richard Simmons in the mix, and you could blow a mouthful of teeth.
Second, where would Stern be without his long-time side mates Robin Quivers and Gary Dell’Abate? We often talk of originality. The big bang. The one epic moment that forced our hand. Stern was that tectonic shift that breached staid media.
Stern of today is far different. Yet, to see him as a representative of mainstream media is a disservice. With Joe Rogan, Marc Maron and one billion podcasts vying for our attention, Stern is still the governor. Long gone are the offensive sexual scrapes, in with thoughtful, detailed, well-researched interviews. This doesn’t mean Stern surrenders the shock value of his long-time cadre of office help. Ronnie, the limo driver, has retreated. One slab of anger and disgust put to rest, although so often damn funny. The rest hang in for the fart jokes, dimwits, puppets, and usual antics. Stern still encourages the cast of misfits to rumble and tumble while he plays colour commentator with bigger issues ahead.
For discernible reasons, I brought Stern up in this article on songwriting after Clive Davis, knowing the two had a dust-up over Davis’s memoir and treatment of singer Kelly Clarkson. Both have massive egos. Let’s leave it there.
The man knows and lives the lives of musicians. Stern aims for the right questions—and follow-ups. Witness a new clip featuring various performers discussing their hits - Stories Behind Their Hit Songs. Maren Morris and GIRL. Stern begs the artist to sing with her group, a Capella. Riveting and gorgeous. As Maren says, GIRL is a song about self-hatred and rejection. Fighting with a best friend in the industry and discovering the song is about her. Why is she taking the career thing seriously when it should be fun? Criticism and pressure. Revealing!
Lisa Loeb—Stay (I Missed You). Loeb discusses her friendship with actor Ethan Hawke, who had the starring role in the movie Reality Bites. Ethan asks for a copy of a song he heard her perform at one of her live shows. This, from an unsigned artist. Unsigned made it easier for her to cut a deal for Ben Stiller’s movie. Bingo! A radio station in Houston plays Stay from the soundtrack, she suddenly blows up. The song? That give and take between lovers, the arguments, the escape routes.
JAY-Z–’99 Problems. Crack dealing as a 14-year-old. Survival and the realisation of 16-hour days standing on cold side streets selling drugs were not that profitable. As JAY-Z says, 14-year-olds make poor decisions. Understand the circumstances and don’t just dismiss us as crack dealers. The inspiration—our people were being pulled over for driving black. Z was in a car with a ‘trunk full of trouble’, stopped, and when canines were summoned—none showed. That game-changing moment.
More, in the mix—Jewel, Who Will Save Your Soul, Metallica, Fade to Black, Miley Cyrus, Wrecking Ball, Billy Joel, Uptown Girl, and David Grohl.
Great songwriting is about intimate struggles: that heartache, the anger, the circumstances, the solutions. With AI—Artificial Intelligence entering the songwriting game, I predict the days of nine to a song, scrapping together snippets of previous hits, are numbered. But the person with an authentic story to tell and a unique way of addressing and retelling will still be an inspiration, and always a necessity.