90-year-old Clive Davis on signing some of the biggest names in the music business: “I do know when I hear a hit song”

In his early years, Clive Davis was never drawn to music. He began his career as a lawyer.  

“I was plucked out of a law firm to become chief lawyer for Columbia Records three years out of law school. I did that for five years,” Davis told “CBS Mornings” co-host Gayle King. 

He was shortly made to be head of Columbia Records with no training in music. Davis said he never thought he would have a “musical ear” but he is credited to be one of the greatest hit-makers—signing some of the biggest names in the business, including Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Billy Joel, and Earth Wind and Fire. 

Davis celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this month. The star-studded event included an impromptu performance by Alicia Keys, one of his most successful artists.  

Artists like David Foster said the secret to Davis’s success is mutual respect.

“He’s completely artist-friendly and the artist always comes first,” Foster said.

“He is an inspiration to everyone in the music business, and most of all to me,” Manilow added. 

Currently, singers become famous quickly on social media because their music goes viral. Davis said that this makes it harder to find talent. 

“It would be harder because right now there’s no Bob Dylan, there’s no Bruce Springsteen. Right now there’s no Aretha Franklin,” he said.  

Despite decades in the business, Davis said he can not explain what a hit single sounds like, he just knows when he hears it. 

“I do know when I hear a hit song. And so Simon and Garfunkel, [I’ll] never forget that when they played me ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ I said, ‘That has gotta be the first single,'” he recalled. “I felt it was so classic and it still to this day is my favorite song.” 

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