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Posts Tagged ‘Clive Davis’

I wasn’t quite 25 years old yet, but I was deeply in the mix of the New York music community when her first single dropped. I was promoting records to NY Urban powerhouse 98.7 Kiss-FM and the historically important WBLS-FM. They were cool records by unknowns named LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. Dangerous bits of rebellion concocted by a NYU student named Rick Rubin. I spent time in a world below 14th Street in Manhattan-an area of town that was affectionately referred to as Downtown. I was pioneering.

I’d grown up on a steady diet of Soul, Funk, Jazz/Funk, Fusion, Jazz, New Wave, Rock, Pop and Black Dance records that bubbled up from the underground. MTV held sway over what really jumped off, and I thought that I’d understood where they were coming from. Prince had just broken through on the strength of his 1999 and Purple Rain records; Michael Jackson had completed a two-year reign of terror riding the video releases from Thriller into the stratosphere; Nile Rodgers’ production chops had set it off for David Bowie, Duran Duran and Madonna. Run/DMC was poised to make history and bring Hip Hop to the suburbs, and a thin, ex-model from New Jersey sang a ballad that lit up Black Radio called “You Give Good Love”.

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RIP

Because of how and where I spent my time, I was positioned to dislike Whitney Houston’s music immensely. Her sound was corporate Black Pop, and to my ears, not quite as soulful as that of Luther Vandross. Corporate Black Pop was the soundtrack for the empires that were being built inside the halls of the major labels in the ’80s. In those days, I was an advocate for Hip Hop and that made me and my collaborators uninvited guests to the party that major label Black Music departments and Black Radio were having with one another. Hip Hop was relegated to a network of mix show jocks, clubs and local video shows like, New York’s Video Music Box and New York Hot Tracks. We worked on the margins.

I’d heard a good deal of slick Black Pop and I wasn’t opposed to it on principle, I was opposed to it because it presented an obstacle to my growth. But, there was something a little different about Whitney; she had a pure instrument and a sweetness that had undeniable appeal. By the time MTV added the video for Saving All My Love For You, I was in; the cute young girl from Jersey got me. I wasn’t alone, her innocent interpretation of a chick on the side who wants it all, connected in a massive way. We should have known then that there was a darker side to it all.

The drugs, the erratic behavior, domestic discord, ill advised interviews and unkempt and disheveled appearances have all been documented elsewhere, and we won’t be going into any of that here. The voice, perhaps the greatest voice that America produced in the post civil rights era lives on. Predictably, iTunes is shifting downloads of her Greatest Hits package like President Obama sang a medley of them on the stage of the Apollo.

I met her a couple of times, hung out at several of her recording sessions and attended her wedding reception. 19 1/2 years ago, on that scorching day in July, she was hotter than the month itself. Her greatest triumph, simultaneously starring in The Bodyguard, and the monstrous single from the soundtrack, I Will Always Love You, engulfed her in an aura of success that was felt on a worldwide basis.. She was young, regal, radiant and the undisputed queen of pop. It seemed like she would live forever.

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Shouts to Gerry Griffith, Pam Lewis Rudden, Nelson George, Dr, Jeckyl, John Leland and Tony Anderson.

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I first heard the music of Gil Scott-Heron when I was 10 or 11 years old on the seminal, NY area based ’70s PBS variety show SOUL, the one hour afro-centric, arts and variety program, that gave a young kid a peek at the playas in the emerging Black counter culture explosion, that was sweeping America in the post King era. Scott-Heron was featured performing, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the essential hip hop predecessor that paved the way for Public Enemy, X-Clan, Common and too many others to name. The master Bluesician blended jazz, soul, funk, poetry with activist rhetoric, and captured the militant spirit of the era perhaps better than any of his other contemporaries. There were singers, and writers of protest music who rocked when he did, and who were more famous, such as; James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, the Last Poets, and the great Marvin Gaye. But none were as pointed nor as biting as Scott-Heron.

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Without any obvious regard for commercial consideration, he was free to pretty much do, and say as he pleased. He documented the struggles of progressive activists, working people and people of color against; government oppression, unchecked policing, complacency, apathy and addiction. He also connected the dots on those and other fronts with events concerning the indigenous people of South Africa and their fight against apartheid, and did it all in a melodic, groovy, satirical and soulful way.

His early work was recorded on small independently distributed labels, and after his breakout anti alcoholism classic, “The Bottle,” a single taken from “Winter In America,” rocked Black FM outlets, and house parties alike, Clive Davis decided to sign him as the first artist to his fledgling startup Arista imprint. Where Scot-Heron, and his collaborator, Brian Jackson’s Midnight Band, recorded the album “From South Carolina to South Africa,” and hit again with the anti apartheid themed, “Johannesburg.”

I’d never asked a girl to dance to anything as overtly political as the music of Gil Scott-Heron before, but when you heard the famous Spanish count off to the beginning of “The Bottle” at a house party, or the wildly infectious “Johannesburg” it was difficult to sit that one out for any reason. Gil had a raspy, hip and funky vocal style that involved you in his tales, whether they were spoken or sung. And he had a lyrical ability to convey imagery in an almost cinematic way.

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In addition to the radio hits, there were the album cuts that revealed his love of family, and community. The ballads and mid-tempos that evoked deep connection with his artistry; “Your Daddy Loves You;” “95 South”; “Winter In America”; “We Almost Lost Detroit”; “Better Days Ahead” and others. He recorded several poems that were more political than the songs, and they too became classics.

He questioned the priorities of federal spending in “Whitey On The Moon,” and the folly of the Nixonian White House in, “The H2Ogate Blues.” In his quest to shed light on injustice, indifference and insensitivity through his music, he was relentless.

There were good and heady times throughout the rest of the ’70’s. He met and married the blaxploitation era screen siren, Brenda Sykes. The brown sugar coated cutie with the huge eyes who was featured in “The Liberation of LB Jones”; “Mandingo” and “Drum.” I crashed a pair of Scott-Heron sets during my time as a college radio dj at Northeastern’s WRBB-Fm in Boston. I finagled entrance to the backstage area, and met the master on both nights of his engagement. He introduced me to Miss Sykes on the second night. A highlight of my college radio career.

The prolific outpouring of politically directed poetry, jazz, soul and blues that the 70s inspired began to slow to a drip. The eighties only inspired 4 releases, and the 90’s only one. Subsequently, Scott-Heron became better known for his run ins with the law, and he began a revolving door of incarceration, addiction and rumored returns to the studio. Like Sly Stone, his fan base hoped for a return to the studio, and his few performances became legend.

He played New York’s SOB’s frequently, and had a standing date there every King Holiday. Shortly after the Los Angeles Rebellion in ’92, I caught one of his SOB’s gigs in the hopes that I could sign him to EMI. My reasoning was this: with all of the residual frustration that a dozen years of Reagonomics had caused, still freshly on the minds and spirits of the people, it would have been a perfect time for a new offering from one of the greatest political thinkers the music had ever produced.

Unfortunately, what I saw was someone who had been ravaged by addiction, and the passage of time. To his credit, when he sang “Winter In America,” he brought tears to the eyes of several patrons in the audience. I was devastated to see the great man so broken.

Before the show started, I caught him entering the gig from the front door, and we chatted briefly. I was uncertain if he remembered me from having met me from the previous decade, or if he just spent time chatting up a fan, or if he felt my music business vibe, and wanted to get his network on. Whichever his deal, he seemed medicated and slightly out of it, even though he was extremely gregarious.

I caught several more shows throughout the ’90s, and saw him play SOB’s one last time in the summer of 2000. With the exception of 1994s “Spirits” CD, and a few featured guest collaborations, there was no new music from him. Until this year. In February he ended his 16 years of silence, and returned with a new collection of recordings on Britain’s XL Recordings entitled “I’m New Here.” If the road to wisdom is paved with excess, these new recordings are proof that this is so.

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As it is with many great artists, the subject matter is deeply personal, and the project gives a long time listener a look back over the years through Scott-Heron’s gruff, and withered persona and his defiant spirit. It also gives the uninitiated an introduction through it’s crisp state of the art sonics. He’s cast himself as a burnout on his last go round, and it serves to remind us of Jeff Bridges Oscar winning turn as a faded country & western star in last year’s “Crazy Heart.” In fact all of the pain, suffering and regret informs every note of the country & western influenced title track. He looks back at being raised by his maternal grandmother in the poem “On Being From A Broken Home,” his struggle with addiction on the single, “Me And The Devil.” and the standout track, “I’ll Take Care Of You,” is a classic begging jawn where the old lion growls his intentions. Gil is back. Get on it.

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mad shouts to Jay Dixon, Kevin Trotman, Darius Walker, Karen A. Williams, RIP Momma

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A&R legend, Gerry Griffith has returned to post another guest blog for us. This time he completes the tale of how he discovered and signed Whitney Houston and found the first hits that would propel her to a career that has seen her sell nearly 200 million recordings.

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As I look back, I can recall a time before we signed Whitney Houston to a full contract, and Bruce Lundvall still wanted to bring the young diva to Elektra. I would drop in to see her perform with Cissy at the New York soul food cabaret Sweetwaters, and there he was sitting in the room…we would always gesture with a smile and wave. I’d worked with Bruce during his tenure as the president of Columbia Records. He’d promoted me to West Coast Product Manager, and later into the A&R ranks in Los Angeles.

My first project as Product Manager was Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather,“ and my first A&R assignment was to work with of one his artist signings, Bill Withers on his “Menagerie” album. Bill’s “Lovely Day” came from that album. Bruce had also worked for Clive Davis at Columbia in the 70’s as VP of Marketing. So now I’m the protégé in competition with one of my mentors… interesting times.

Bruce never got the chance to sign Whitney because from what I understood, the Chairman of Elektra “was not in to her.” But Bruce does have the distinction of releasing two tracks with her before we released a single recording on Arista; the song “Memories” with Archie Shepp on Bill Laswell’s 1982 Material LP, and with Teddy Pendergrass on his1984 duet “Hold Me,” on the ”Love Language” LP (with Arista‘s permission).Over the two years since signing with us, she was maturing into a star, as was evident on “Hold Me,” but we were recording big hits too.

Clive appeared on the nationally televised Merv Griffin show and introduced Whitney to the country. According to their producer, her appearance generated more positive letters and phone calls than any other artist in the show’s history! Unfortunately, this didn’t lead to creating interest from any A-list producers we approached. So Clive had the idea to showcase Whitney and her aunt Dionne Warwick in Los Angeles, where we would invite the top west coast songwriters and producers to see them perform. Our effort did not lead to one great song or interested producer, so we returned to NY and continued our search.

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The Pendergrass hit duet “Hold Me’ was produced by Michael Masser. He’d had previous successes with headliners; George Benson, Peabo Bryson, and Diana Ross. Clive hired him for the project, and I brought in our new artist producer Kashif who was coming off his top 10 solo hit, and Evelyn King’s “Love Come Down” to write and produce. Jermaine Jackson had recently signed to the label and immediately asked to produce Whitney. Three talented producers, three interesting stories.

In the course of looking for song material, I got a call from producer Dennis Lambert. At the time, Dennis was a hit maker with diverse productions like; Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy, The Four Tops “Ain’t No Woman Like The One I Got,” and all of Tavares‘ hits. He wanted me to hear a song for Whitney’s project that he’d co-written with Siedah Garrett and Franne Golde. We met and I absolutely loved the song. I convinced Clive to have Jermaine produce and sing the duet with our budding star.

We completed the track and Clive loved it, but there was a problem. A few weeks after the basic production was completed, an apologetic Dennis called me to explain that he had to pull the tune from the project. He was producing (former Temptations lead singer) Dennis Edwards at Motown, and since our album was not slated for release any time soon, (Motown founder) Berry Gordy needed an immediate first single on Edwards. If you haven’t guessed by now, the song was ”Don’t Look Any Further.” We were devastated. Jermaine replaced the duet with a beautiful ballad “Take Good Care of My Heart.”

The next song came from my friend Brenda Andrews at Almo-Irving Publishing. The company signed two British writers Merrill and Rubicam, who wrote a song “How Will I Know.” Great song, now who could produce it? I was introduced to Narada Michael Walden by Angie Bofill at the time he worked on her Arista/GRP Records album “Something About You” in 1981. I had always loved his aggressive production style and attitude, he was producing Aretha’s Franklin‘s, “Freeway of Love” at the time for us. Taking time from Aretha, we had him produce “How Will I Know” for Whitney. Looking back, it seems the Columbia Records connection was at work again. Narada was the drummer for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report’s “Black Market” LP, two of my all time favorite bands, and Clive, Bruce and I were all with Columbia Records when these records were released.

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NARADA

Masser was creating pure love in the studio with his songs, especially “Saving All My Love for You,” and “Greatest Love of All.” He was perfect for Whitney. My good friend Kenneth Reynolds, who was an Arista product manager at the time, recently reminded me that the first mix of the song Masser delivered was so soulful that one would think Aretha was singing, and Clive announced at our staff meeting when he heard it, that it was “too black.” I really wish I had kept that mix!

Kashif bought Jackie Robinson’s home in Stamford Connecticut and built a studio there. One day while we were listening to songs, Kashif asked one of his writers LaLa Cope to sit and play a song she wrote titled “You Give Good Love.” The memory of this moment still resonates within my soul…the song was perfect for the project. A few weeks later at the final vocal session, Whitney aced the lead vocal in one take, we were speechless…this was to be my final contribution to her debut album.

I resigned from Arista in September 1984. Lundvall had formed a new label, Manhattan Records, with EMI America. He asked me to join him as head of A&R. It seems both of us needed greener pastures, and a fresh start.

During a trip to Los Angeles Bruce asked me to join him at Bobby Colomby’s house to hear a new artist named Richard Marks perform. Bobby was our west coast representative. When Richard ended his set, Bruce walked over to the piano, praised the performance and asked him to join the label. Traveling back to the office, I asked Bruce if I could A&R the project, he said yes…

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WHITNEY, THE AUTHOR DISPLAYING THE ART OF GENTLE PERSUASION & DIONNE WARWICKE

EPILOGUE

From the time Whitney Houston released “I Look To You“, many of my colleagues have asked my opinion of the songs and performances on her new album. It’s been difficult not to read the many reviews, so after listening to the record and viewing the much anticipated Oprah and Good Morning America appearances, I now have a refreshed opinion of our world renowned superstar, not her music. The question (for me) is not whether the vocals are as remarkable as her past performances, if the song selection is brilliant, if the production values are fresh, or even if she will sell millions of albums.

The song “I Love” is her courageous triumph over odds that would stop most of us in our tracks. I choose to celebrate Whitney’s strength to walk into a studio, stand in front of the microphone and sing. For her to make music in the face of all the negative criticism that has haunted her over the years, to cast out the demons and sing her song, that’s what I honor. No matter how many albums she sells, my stand for Whitney is that we all realize that this human being is still the most celebrated vocalist in the world, or should I say the boldest and most celebrated vocalist in the world? The lady sings, and that is what matters.

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Whitney Houston was a young woman who was blessed with looks, youth, drive, opportunity and one of the great voices of the 20th century. About 25 years ago, she dropped her debut release on Arista Records and it quickly became apparent that nothing would be quite the same for her (or us) ever again. She burst on the stage with a flourish and amidst a marketplace that was dominated by MTV-supported success, she cut through it all with a sweetly angelic voice and a virginal persona, and smashed with “Saving All My Love For You.”

One executive had the vision that projected the thin former model as a worldwide diamond-level success, A&R legend, Gerry Griffith. He discovered her and signed her to the label and then as a result of corporate politics, had the credit for his discovery given to others. What follows is his tale of how he found the great Whitney Houston. Oh yeah, her new CD “I Look To You,” her first new studio collection in a decade, debuted at No. 1 and currently sits at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 200 Chart.

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Most people in the music business see an A&R executive as someone endowed with special powers who is able to pull talented artists out of the water like fish on a line. Yes, it does happen, but timing and luck play a larger part in the discovery of the truly gifted artist. Sometimes you drop into a club and there they are, on stage singing or playing their heads off. Or sometimes, you might find yourself surprised by a tape or CD. And other times, the phone rings. In the case of Whitney Houston, two of the above happened to me.

Richard Smith, head of R&B promotion at Arista Records and I were attending a performance of one of our artists, GRP/Arista jazz man, Dave Valentine. He was playing in Greenwich Village at the legendary nightspot, The Bottom Line. Sweet Inspiration, Cissy Houston was the opening act. Because an A&R executive is constantly looking for hits, I would drop in from time to time on music publisher Love Zager to scout new song material for Arista artists. I knew Cissy through this. The set began, and Cissy was as captivating as ever, the audience enjoyed every moment. After about three or four songs, Cissy’s beautiful, wiry 15 year old daughter stepped out to sing; I had never seen or heard her sing before. After a song or two, Richard poked me in my side and said, “Man, you should sign that girl.”

My response was, “Yeah, for such a young singer she’s really good, and as professional as she is, I don’t feel she needs a bit more seasoning.“ Or something to that effect. Richard was pissed with my response, but that’s normal for record promotion guys, so I let it go and continued to enjoy the show.

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Close to a year later, I received a call from my friend Fran who was not in the music business. She asked if I knew Whitney Houston. I said yes and related the Bottom Line story. Fran thought that I’d better make some fast moves because she had recently seen Whitney perform at a private party for two wealthy lady friends who wanted to secure a recording deal and manage the beautiful young artist and model. She suggested to her friends that they should consider Arista Records, and wondered if I would meet with them. I agreed even though the ladies had no prior management experience. Additionally, I knew that Whitney had management but they were prepared to buy her out of her existing management deal.

What I heard next from Fran freaked me out! Bruce Lundvall, who was then President of Elektra Records was interested in signing her. I thought that I had blown it and that I should have listened to Richard. I also thought that if my boss Clive Davis found out that he’d be pissed. Crazy shit like that was going through my mind. In the A&R game, we don’t get many chances to sign the special ones.

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BRUCE LUNDVALL

As a courtesy I met with the two ladies, made no promises, thanked them and split. “So, OK, now what?” I asked myself. The answer: call Deidre O’Hara at the publishing company for Whitney’s manager’s telephone numbers. Got it. I called Gene Harvey, introduced myself, and in a joyful accepting voice Gene said, “Arista, oh yeah, Clive Davis.”

I accepted what all Arista executives have had to tolerate: the fact that the boss always upstaged us. I asked if I could see Whitney perform again before they made a decision about a label for her. Gene said no decision had been made, and that she was performing on the upcoming weekend with Cissy at Seventh Ave South. Thanking Jesus and thinking I needed a drink, I left with a smile.

Seventh Avenue South was a cool small bar owned by the Brecker Brothers and was appropriately named since it was located on the southern edge of the West Village on 7th avenue. It was around the corner from the best dance club in New York, The Paradise Garage.

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THE SWEET INSPIRATION

I didn’t have time to meet Whitney before the performance, so I chilled with a Heineken and a smoke before the show started. While the band assembled, Whitney, her brother Gary and the other background singers took their place on stage. Since the previous time that I’d seen her, she had matured and seemed taller. The band began to play and Cissy appeared to the audiences’ applause…little did I know that history was in the making.

Cissy sang three or four songs, then Whitney stepped out for her contribution, which was stunning, especially her version of “Home,” the Stephanie Mills hit. I was totally amazed how she had grown vocally and stylistically. Whitney had the natural ability to take a song and recreate it with the vocal prowess and command that I hadn’t heard since a young Aretha. She was powerful, present, fearless, yet so young and innocent.

I met with her after the show and told her how amazed I was at her stage presence and vocal talent, and that I wanted to set up a showcase for Clive. Now you must understand, that growing up the music I was exposed to was Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. Included among the artists I had worked with were Aretha, Dionne, Phyllis Hymen, Jennifer Holiday, and Minnie Riperton. This young lady had the potential to join this illustrious crew. OK, so now it was time to get Clive on board.

The next day, I boldly walked into his office and asked for a meeting. I sat down and told him that I heard an amazingly talented young singer that we must sign and that I wanted to showcase her for him within a week. He said “OK, set it up.” Damn, that was easy!

Using Cissy’s band and background singers, we rehearsed for five days. At around 6:30 or 7:00 the night of the showcase, I went to Clive’s office to take him to the gig, and to my surprise he asked me if we could move the audition to another time since he had a difficult day and thought it best if he didn’t attend this night. I was silently pissed, but I refused to back down and calmly explained that Whitney had worked very hard to give him a great thirty minute show that promised to be lively. Clive acquiesced, and we took the elevator down to 57th Street where his car was waiting. It was a fifteen minute drive to the rehearsal space on 35th and 8th Avenue.

It was a funky joint on the sixth floor, that was used by many well known bands and performers. We walked in and were met enthusiastically by Gene Harvey, Cissy came over to say hello to Clive, and after basic pleasantries we all sat down. Showtime!

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ARISTA FOUNDER CLIVE DAVIS, A YOUNG DIVA & THE AUTHOR

Whitney approached the mike. She was young, beautiful and confident. Confidence: that professional quality she had learned from a very young age singing in the church, at private affairs, and on the road…for those of us who had experienced her glorious gifts, we were nervous yet joyful. Young Whitney had that “wow” factor that keeps you on the edge of your seat anticipating the first downbeat. She choose all the songs, but I insisted that she close the set with “Home.” Clive was cool, showing little emotion during the performance until the last song. I had worked with him for almost three years, and I had a natural feel for what made him pay attention…the big melodious ballads with strong hooks. I also knew that her version of “Home” would get his attention. After the show, he expressed how impressed he was to Whitney, and said we would talk at the office tomorrow and let them know his thoughts. Clive left and we all congratulated Whitney on a great performance. Cissy and Gene were both very confident she would get the deal…me too.

I met with Clive the following day, and to my surprise he was not impressed enough to sign her. What the hell went wrong? Whitney gave a killer professional performance. I refused to let this lady get away from us, so I continued to explain that if we don’t do this Bruce Lundvall would sign her in a moment once he finds out about the showcase. Well nothing worked until Clive took a few of his friends to another of Cissy’s shows where his friends told him that he was crazy not to sign this talent. So we did sign her, but to a three song development deal with our option for a complete album once the three songs were accepted…now I went to work looking for producers and song material… So why didn’t Bruce sign her when he had the chance?

to be continued…..

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