When Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to put on a massive, multigenre concert in Central Park to celebrate New York City’s long-awaited return from COVID-19, he had to call somebody. Mayors aren’t music producers. They don’t know every major artist from the past 50-some years.
That’s Clive Davis’s job.
“I was deeply honored when the mayor called me and explained the purpose of the evening and the location of the evening,” the legendary music executive was saying as sound boards were being assembled and high-voltage wires were being strung across the park’s Great Lawn. “I understood immediately. The bar has got to be the highest here. It has to be a concert no one will ever forget.”
And really, who else had Davis’s reach, relationships and breadth of experience with A-list rockers, rappers and almost everyone else in the music world, not to mention his way-back Brooklyn cred. As the story goes, he was a 28-year-old attorney, toiling in a tony Midtown firm, when he got an offer to join the legal department at Columbia Records. His senior partner urged strongly against it.
“He said, ‘Clive, I’ve got to be honest with you. Look at what you’re wearing. Khaki pants. A tweed jacket. You’re a graduate of Harvard Law School. You know, there’s a lot of gold chains in the record business. It’s a different breed over there. None of them dress like you.’”
Davis considered his boss’s well-intentioned warning before deciding to ignore it. “What he didn’t know was that I grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A melting-pot neighborhood. It was predominantly white then, but we had a large number of black residents. Italians. Irish. All different groups. It was punchball. It was stickball. It was learning to get along with people different from yourself.”
Really, how different could the music business be?
“Yes, I went to law school at Harvard,” he said. “But I wasn’t really an Ivy Leaguer. I was PS 161. Erasmus Hall High School. NYU,” where Davis went on scholarship. “That’s where I learned what used to be called the minimum essentials.”
This Brooklyn breeding, Davis remains convinced, gave him the chutzpah to sign his first artist, a Texas blues belter named Janis Joplin, and after that an almost endless roster of future music stars: Santana, Bruce Springsteen, Chicago, Billy Joel, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Patti Smith, Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow. He teamed up with Sean “Puffy” Combs to launch Bad Boy Records, home to Combs, Faith Evans and the Notorious B.I.G. With L.A. Reid and Babyface, he delivered LaFace artists TLC, Usher, Outkast, Pink and Toni Braxton to stardom.
“The mix of all those different artists, that’s part of my New York DNA,” Davis said.
So on Saturday night, 65,000 COVID-vaccinated people will assemble on New York’s front lawn for a free, multi-artist, multigenre “We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert.” The free tickets have been snapped up already, but some VIP tickets remain, and the show will air live on CNN. You may recognize a few familiar faces on the stage.
“We’re going to open with the New York Philharmonic, all 75 members,” said Davis, whose official title now is world-wide chief creative officer at Sony Music Entertainment.
“They will stay on stage to perform with Andrea Bocelli and with Jennifer Hudson. Then, we break it out, and we have rap with LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes and Melle Mel and Reverend Run and even A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, O. K.? And Polo G. In rock, we have Elvis Costello. We have The Killers. We have Patti Smith, and we have Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon. From Broadway, we have the great Cynthia Erivo. So, yes, we represent all these genres of music and hopefully with depth, with brilliance, with quality, to make it an unforgettable night.”
So how hard was it to assemble such a lineup for an outdoor, one-night show?
“It was as hard as making a phone call,” he said. “I have to tell you, I was blown away. Bruce is doing a show every night on Broadway. But he said, ‘Look, I’ve gotta be there. I’ll do a duet with Patti. Approach Patti.”
Davis called the punk pioneer Patti Smith. “She was in in a second,” he said. “She only asked one favor. She said, ‘Sometimes Van Morrison doesn’t give me permission to do ‘Gloria’ at the end of ‘Horses.’ Would you call Van and help me get permission?’ So I left a message for Van and his attorney. The next morning, I heard back. ‘Yes, Clive. It’s my personal pleasure.’”
And so it went.
“I called Barry Manilow. I called Paul Simon. I called my friends. I’m so proud that they have become icons. I’m so proud so many of them — Barry, Santana, so many of them — are still headlining all these decades later.”
Davis’s team, son Doug Davis, Mark Johnston, Patrick Menton, “went to all the other artists,” he said. “Went to The Killers and LL Cool Jay and Elvis. Went to Journey and everyone else you see being advertised for this great night of music.”
A New Yorker put together a show for New Yorkers to celebrate the post-COVID return of New York City. Now, if only COVID will do its part and leave.
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.