I’ve always admired executives who have a clean desk,” Clive Davis says wistfully. “It’s a mission I fail miserably at.” Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to see Davis’ long, elegantly curved wooden desk. It’s both covered with and surrounded by stacks of CDs, books, memos, research packets, memorabilia, souvenir paperweights and manuscript pages for the autobiography he has just completed. Can he find anything amid the clutter? “It looks messy, but I know where everything is,” he says, smiling. “And I know if someone disturbs it overnight, which I beg not to happen. My desk reflects the number of projects I’m working on.”
There’s no shortage of those. At 80, “Clive”—everyone calls him Clive; there is no other—is busier than most executives who are half his age. Most immediately, he’s producing albums by Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson and actively promoting I Will Always Love You, the greatest-hits collection by Whitney Houston, the pop diva whom Davis discovered when she was in her teens and worked with until her death last February. And if his desk reflects what he’s up to right now, his massive office, a floating Clive-box aerie in Manhattan atop the Sony Building at Madison Avenue and 55th Street, reflects, both literally and metaphorically, the heights to which his legendary career has raised him.
Dionne Warwick, Clive Davis and Whitney Houston in 1990
At his desk Davis can turn to his right and stare directly at the top floors of the Empire State Building a mile south. To the east he can see the Park Avenue tower that houses his penthouse duplex with 360-degree views of the city. Born into a working-class Brooklyn family during the Depression, Davis says, “I’m a New Yorker through and through. It’s comforting to me, being surrounded by New York up in the sky. Not having grown up in this manner, I know the difference. And it’s a good feeling!”
On a counter behind Clive’s desk sits a lavender crystal geode mounted on glass, a holiday present from Whitney Houston. On the same counter is a bust of Robert F. Kennedy, an early hero. Behind it is a framed print of RFK set against New York City’s Triborough Bridge, which was renamed in Kennedy’s honor in 2008. It was presented to Davis by Ethel Kennedy, and her inscription reads: “To Clive, who, like Bobby, dreams things that never were and asks, Why not?”
One wall of Davis’s office is devoted to framed photographs of artists with whom he has worked:
Patti Smith, Sly Stone, the Eurythmics and Bruce Springsteen, among them. “Most of those pictures have stood the test of time, like when I first signed Janis Joplin or Carlos Santana,” Clive says. “Not many current artists, because when they visit, you get into, ‘Why isn’t my picture on your wall?’ I don’t want that to be a question.”
To visitors, this room might look like a museum, but for Clive it remains a work space. He moved into it in 2008 when he became the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, and this is where he listens to music, most often alone. The first subject he raises when asked about the office are the large black speakers that hang from the ceiling on either side of his desk. Clive likes to play his music loud. And when an artist like Alicia Keys, another of his many discoveries, comes in to play a new song for him, he wants the sound to be impeccable.
A graduate of New York University and Harvard Law School, Davis is as sharp an executive as the music industry has ever seen. But throughout a career that has earned him induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he has primarily believed in just plain outworking the competition. His office is where that work gets done. “My office has been my second home,” he says, pausing to laugh as he reminisces. “For years I’d be waiting for Studio 54 to open or I’d be going to see bands perform at midnight at CBGB, so I’d stay at my office until it was time to leave.
“When things were going so well for us, I used to ask Whitney, ‘Are you pinching yourself?’” he recalls. “I feel that myself. I’m so fortunate that the office I spend so many hours a day in is as inviting and comfortable as it is.”